The Pension Rights Center and the New England Pension Assistance Project applaud the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (PBGC), the National Archives, and the Employee Benefits Security Administration (EBSA) of the Department of Labor for saving an extensive microfiche collection of Summary Plan Descriptions (SPDs). Summary Plan Descriptions are plain-English summaries of employee benefit plan rules, which can be critical in helping retirees, widows, and widowers prove that they are entitled to benefits from their pension plans or the PBGC.
Many years ago, private pension plans were required to file their SPDs with EBSA, but a 1997 law granted EBSA the authority to destroy old documents. Paper files dating from 1991-1997 were destroyed – and this microfiche archive, dating from 1975-1991, was next in line. At the urging of the Pension Rights Center and the New England Pension Assistance Project, government officials held off until a permanent solution could be found.
“Too often when companies go bankrupt or merge, SPDs are forever lost and there is no way to retrieve them, wiping out an indispensable way for retirees to prove their eligibility for benefits,” said Karen Friedman, executive vice president of the Pension Rights Center. “The agencies worked together toward a solution. We want to thank Joshua Gotbaum, who agreed to take custody of the documents during his tenure as director of the PBGC, the National Archives for agreeing to house them, and Assistant Secretary of Labor Phyllis Borzi for giving us time to work out a solution. And we owe special thanks to the PBGC’s Participant and Plan Sponsor Advocate, Constance Donovan, for spending months figuring out a constructive process to make all this work.”
A pivotal case demonstrating the importance of retaining old SPDs was that of Mary Jane LaChapelle, a 68-year-old old widow from North Scituate, Rhode Island. When Mrs. LaChapelle contacted the New England Pension Assistance Project, she believed that she was eligible for a survivor benefit from her late husband’s pension plan but she didn’t know how to prove it. Her husband’s employer, a small manufacturing company, had changed hands, and the new owner knew nothing about the pension plan. After researching her situation for three years, the New England Project determined that her benefit should be paid by the PBGC. However, it was only when the agency’s Participant and Plan Sponsor Advocate found the SPD in EBSA’s microfiche files that the agency was able to pay Mrs. LaChapelle her benefit.
“I owe so much to the New England Pension Assistance Project, the PBGC, and Connie Donovan” says Mrs. LaChapelle. “I’m living only on Social Security and what I make from a part-time job. That lump sum made such a difference in my life. I’m so glad the agencies are keeping these documents for widows like me. This shows that the government can work for the little people.”
Jeanne Medeiros, director of the New England Pension Assistance Project, echoed Mrs. LaChapelle’s comments. “The importance of preserving these documents cannot be overstated. Our experience has shown that having access to these documents can mean the difference between a retiree or widow getting the benefits he or she has earned or not getting them.”