Multiemployer pension plans, like other employer plans, have been challenged by two financial crises since 2000. The majority of multiemployer plans are returning to financial health, but a substantial minority face serious funding problems that are exacerbated by unique structural challenges in the multiemployer sector. These challenges include a high ratio of inactive to total participants, high rates of negative cash flow, and inadequate withdrawal penalties so that exiting companies do not cover the costs they leave behind.
The Multiemployer Pension Reform Act (MPRA) of 2014 has not proved to be a cure-all for the multiemployer crisis. As of November 2017, the U.S. Treasury Department has approved four of the 15 benefit-cut requests submitted by these plans. Of the remainder, one application remains under review, five applications have been denied, and five have been withdrawn. So, while the ultimate effectiveness of MPRA still remains to be seen, it is clear that other solutions must also be explored to alleviate the multiemployer burden.
At this stage, the majority of proposed solutions to the multiemployer challenge fall into two categories: alleviating the burden of orphaned members – workers left behind when employers exit – and providing subsidized loans – either through direct government lending or government guarantees on private sector loans. Whatever the ultimate solution, a case can be made for a package that involves contributions from employers (tailored not to sink already fragile plans), from plan participants, and from taxpayers.
Any solution to the multiemployer problem must be comprehensive, helping not only those in serious trouble today but also staving off future problems. Early action might stabilize other plans heading for trouble. One clear warning sign for plans is a negative cash flow rate in excess of negative 10 percent.