By David Brandolph
The International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans (IFEBP) recently bestowed its 2022 Public Service Award on the Pension Rights Center’s late founder and president, Karen Ferguson, who died in December.
“Her life’s work was focused on challenging the systems in place to find a better path for a secure retirement,” Kevin E. Tighe, the IFEBP’s president and chair of the board, said in presenting the award.
“She became one of the country’s foremost experts on pension law and a champion of workers’ rights,” and “under her leadership, the Pension Rights Center became the central clearinghouse for all pension related matters,” added Tighe, who is vice president, labor relations, for the National Electrical Contractors Association in Bethesda, Md.
Karen’s son, Andrew Ferguson, a law professor at American University in Washington, D.C., accepted the award on behalf of his mom.
“My mom’s work involved helping people. It could be a widow from Ohio calling in the middle of the night who had a question about her pension or about her husband’s pension that was suddenly cut. It could be a Steelworker in Pennsylvania who sent an email with a question about some arcane and difficult law.” She was always there to answer those calls and interpret the complex laws, rules and policies and explain them to these people who mattered to her, he said.
Until the very last moments of her life, she continued to help people, he said. “This was her superpower. She took really difficult things and explained them to people.”
The public service award, presented May 24 during the IFEBP’s annual Washington Legislative Update, recognizes individuals with outstanding contributions to and concerns for the benefit of others through support and advancement of employee benefit programs.
Following-up on Ferguson’s remarks, James A. Klein, president of the American Benefits Council (ABC) and a past recipient of the public service award, talked about why he nominated Karen for the honor and said that she meant a lot to him and to the employee benefits community.
“It has always struck me, and I think Karen as well, that you don’t make progress in this town [Washington] just by talking to people with whom you agree, but also by talking in a thoughtful, respectful manner with those you disagree.”
Despite he and Karen Ferguson disagreeing on almost all employee benefit plan and pension policy-related issues, Klein said that progress was made.
“The manner in which she conducted herself and established the Pension Rights Center and pursued its mission is emblematic of how we can go about addressing broader problems in our country.”
Klein then moderated a panel discussion with PRC’s Executive Director Karen Friedman and ABC’s Senior Vice President Lynn D. Dudley. The two engaged in a lively debate focusing on a range of benefit plan issues in which the two organizations agree and disagree. Areas of disagreement included the best method for finding missing plan participants and the transition from defined benefit plans to defined contribution plans. Addressing recoupment issues and finding common ground on improving the process of dividing retirement benefits at divorce were clear areas of agreement. ABC, based in Washington, D.C., represents employee benefit plan sponsors.
Before the panel discussion, Friedman said that Karen Ferguson used her “skills and those of PRC staff to achieve pension justice, to empower workers and retirees, and work for positive change in the system.”
“She was always open to finding common ground solutions to solve specific issues – when doing so was in the best interest of participants and beneficiaries — and of plan sponsors.”
Friedman described Karen’s passion, selfless devotion to pensions and retirement justice, and her ability to help people and translate the needs and problems of real people into policy solutions. “Those qualities made the Pension Rights Center who we are, and is what drives us today,” she said.
Karen Ferguson began her career in the 1970s as a public interest lawyer and started delving into pension matters while working with consumer advocate Ralph Nader. She enjoyed tackling the arcane complexities of these issues and helping people who were deprived of pension benefits after a lifetime of work. She became one of the country’s foremost experts on pension law and a champion of workers’ rights.
She created the Pension Rights Center in 1976, making it a stalwart consumer organization dedicated solely to protecting and promoting the retirement income security of American workers, retirees and their families. Under her leadership, the PRC created a pension counseling network to assist people in addressing pension issues, informed public officials and the media about pressing pension matters and promoted legislation such as the Butch Lewis Pension Plan Relief Act of 2021, a law that the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation estimates will fully protect the earned and promised benefits of up to three million plan members, retirees and spouses.
The Center is dedicated to continuing Karen’s legacy and will be working diligently on short-term reforms as well as on her long-term vision of a future where everyone has a financially secure retirement.
Past recipients of the public service award, in addition to Klein, include former Assistant Secretary of Labor Phyllis Borzi, Senators Jacob Javits (R-NY), John Heinz (R-PA), Ted Kennedy (D-MA), Tom Harkin (D-IA), Rob Portman (R-OH) and Charles Grassley (R-IA), and Representatives Claude Pepper (D-FL), Richard Neal (D-MA), and Susan Collins (R-ME).