Employees and retirees in “church plans” are organizing to protest that they are unfairly, and in some cases illegally, being denied the pension protections that other private sector employees have. They are using different strategies. Some are relying on publicity and social media while others have filed lawsuits. Still others are urging government agencies to revise rulings, and asking Congress to change the laws.
Below are just a few examples of activities that employees and retirees covered by church plans are undertaking to make their voice heard.
Traditional Media: Former employees of the Hospital Center at Orange were able to attract the attention of New York Times and Wall Street Journal reporters who have written compelling articles about their plight. Thanks in large part to these articles and visits to their elected representatives in Washington, DC, four prominent U.S. Senators have written a letter to the Secretary of the Treasury and the Commissioner of Internal Revenue Service on their behalf, and also on behalf of participants in the St. Peter’s Medical Center plan and other similarly situated individuals.
National Public Radio and the Wilmington News Journal have highlighted the situation of the lay employees of the Catholic Diocese of Wilmington. A result was that in July 2011 the Bishop of Wilmington announced a settlement in which the Diocese agreed to fully fund the lay employee’s pension fund by the year 2060.
Social Media: When Augsburg Fortress Publishers current and former employees and retirees learned that the benefits promised by their underfunded pension plan were not guaranteed, they took to the internet. The Augsburg Fortress Pension Speak Up Facebook group has allowed them to keep one another updated on recent events, arrange meetings, and ultimately hire lawyers to take their case to court. Other groups, including the Catholic Diocese of Wilmington, have created Facebook pages to share information with others.
Lawsuits: The participants in the Catholic Diocese of Wilmington, Augsburg Fortress Publishers, and Hospital Center at Orange pension plans were all able to find lawyers to challenge their plans’ actions in court. The Hospital Center at Orange lawsuit likely resulted in the Internal Revenue Service instituting a multi-year moratorium on church plan rulings to give it time to reconsider its position on certain church plan rulings.
Contacting Congress: One way that nurses, writers, school teachers, custodians and other lay employees working for churches and church-related employers can take action is to follow the lead of former Hospital Center at Orange employees and let their legislators know about their situations.