Human Capital & Careers

How Do You Spell (Pension) Relief?

The Obama Administration weighs in on pension relief, but controversial restrictions remain.
Alix StuartApril 20, 2010

There’s renewed — though limited — hope for corporate pension plan sponsors looking for a little breathing room in terms of pension funding requirements.

After the House of Representatives stalled last month on a Senate provision that would provide such relief, Department of Labor Secretary Hilda Solis last week sent letters to Rep. Sander Levin (D-Mich.), chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, as well as to Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), chair of the House Education and Labor Committee, expressing the Obama Administration’s support for “targeted legislation that gives plan sponsors a temporary delay of pension contributions.” Yesterday Assistant Secretary Phyllis C. Borzi followed up with an announcement to a broader audience, reiterating the same principles.

“It’s a positive step in the process to move it forward,” says Mark J. Warshawsky, director of retirement research for Towers Watson, noting some legislators may have been reluctant to finalize legislation without hearing from the Administration.

According to the Senate bill passed in March as an amendment to HR 4213, plan sponsors could choose to amortize their pension plan’s losses over a longer period than the currently allowed 7 years, extending them over 9 or 15 years instead. That would give them more time to make up any shortfalls, which, it’s hoped, would be aided by investment gains that would minimize those shortfalls.

However, the DoL missives also support, in principle, some of the less-popular aspects of the Senate relief measures, such as restrictions on how companies use the cash that results from the funding delay. Companies electing to extend their losses would be obligated to make additional pension contributions if they paid any employee more than $1 million in taxable income, or went ahead with “extraordinary” dividends or share buybacks, according to the Senate bill. It also hints at similar strings being attached to M&A activity.

“The legislation should not allow employers who take advantage of this relief to use their improved temporary cash flows to put payments to shareholders and executives ahead of the security of workers’ pensions,” the letters sent by Solis and Borzi read.

The letters encourage lawmakers to require employers to notify employees if they choose to delay pension contributions. They also enjoin them to restrict funding for “companies that are unlikely to be able to meet their pension obligations in the future because of severe financial distress.”

This support comes too late to provide any practical help to many employers, who had to meet an April 15 funding deadline as scheduled. How useful it ultimately proves to be remains to be seen, as well.

“The conditionality for many companies will be severe enough for them to do without the relief,” says Warshawsky. Also, the current Senate provision “is an enormously complex set of rules, so would take quite a bit of effort to figure out” how to comply with it, even for companies who are willing to submit to the conditions, he notes.