pension, some must hunt for it
Sleuthing, challenges help recover millions
By Ross Kerber, Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 14, 2006
It took bricklayer Ken Churchill 25 years to build up his
pension. It took his widow six years to find it.
Before he died of lung cancer in 1999, Churchill's union
told him he didn't qualify for the retirement benefits he
expected. A skeptical Gloria Churchill began a grueling
legal battle that didn't end until a union pension fund last
fall acknowledged that Churchill had put in more time than
it had recorded. As part of a settlement, she won payments
of $129 a month.
''It's not so much the money, it's closure for me," said
Churchill, a grandmother in her 60s who still lives in the
tidy Brookline apartment where they raised three children.
''This is what Ken would have wanted. The union should be
recognizing all the Ken's out there and protecting them."
Some of the country's largest companies, such as IBM Corp.
and Verizon Communications Inc., have drawn much attention
by freezing their pension plans and closing them to new
employees in recent months as they try to control the
soaring costs of pension benefits.
But the story of the bricklayer's widow reflects a
widespread but less well-known problem -- legitimately
earned pension benefits go unclaimed because companies have
been bought or sold, because surviving family members are
unaware of the benefits due them, or because records go lost
or missing and survivors can't muster the resources to
Much of this ''lost" money is kept on the books of private
pension funds or with the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp., a
federal insurance program that takes over plans of bankrupt
companies or those that can't pay their obligations and
currently holds $75 million in unclaimed benefits. But it
doesn't cover some plans offered by smaller companies or
Statistics are scarce about the general profile of the
owners of this money, but many people don't even start
monitoring the benefits they're due until they approach the
typical retirement age of 65. By then it can be hard to
track down an employer that has been sold or perhaps closed
shop decades ago, even with the help of the free counseling
services that have sprung up since the 1990s.
Ellen Bruce, director of the pension counseling program at
the University of Massachusetts at Boston, estimates that
some $20 billion in pension benefits sit, unclaimed, on the
books of companies of all sizes. While just a fraction of
the total $8.2 trillion in assets that US pension plans
hold, it's significant money for retirees and their
families. A program at the US Labor Department that
mediates disputes helped individuals claim $76 million in
pension benefits in 2004, but it covers only some plans and
doesn't provide as much help to individuals.
People searching for pensions that may be due them ''know
there's money in a safe somewhere, but they don't know where
the bank is, and they don't know the combination," Bruce
said. Said John Hotz, deputy director of the Pension Rights
Center, a Washington advocacy group, ''We're talking about
the most complex parts of tax law, and the most complex
parts of labor law."
The UMass-Boston counseling program, the largest of its kind
in the country, has helped individuals recover $27 million
worth of benefits since it began in 1994.
Paul St. Pierre, 56, of Danvers turned to UMass for help
after running into at least five dead ends trying to find
what became of his pension after 22 years at Morton Thiokol
Inc.'s specialty chemical operations on the North Shore,
which he left in the early 1990s. The company had sold off
its businesses in pieces to buyers who weren't helpful when
he called, St. Pierre said.
''When I would contact these people the answer was 'we don't
know you, we don't have you in our system, you don't exist,'
" said St. Pierre, who later ran an advertising business.
Financial counselors at the UMass-Boston program finally
found his benefits stashed away at Rohm and Haas Co. of
Philadelphia, another specialty metals company, worth $1,144
a month when he turns 65.
Rohm and Haas said it wouldn't discuss St. Pierre's case
because of privacy considerations.
Mistakes can also happen. That's what 64-year-old Michael
Sutin of Litchfield, N.H., thinks occurred before counselors
found him an annuity worth $319 a month from his former
employer, a railroad company in New Hampshire, which at one
point incorrectly told Sutin he had taken a buyout. It was
his wife who urged him to pursue the matter. ''I thought it
was a lark; I never thought I'd get anything," Sutin said.
Once Ken Churchill thought he would get nothing, too. Born
in 1935, he grew up in Topsfield and lied about his age to
get into the National Guard at 14, then served in the Korean
War. He and Gloria were introduced by friends at a roller
rink. Their children remember their father coaching their
sports teams in his dusty work clothes and fielding some of
the first girl players on boys' baseball teams in the early
Churchill often rode bulls in rodeos and held a professional
license from 1959 to 1965, likely making him Brookline's
lone cowboy. Son Ken Churchill Jr. remembers his father's
tough-guy sense of humor. Once Ken Jr. was nearly mauled by
a bull, losing most of his clothes to the animal's horns.
His father looked on with concern, then asked, ''Was that my
new shirt you had on?"
He often worked for masonry contractors. As with other
trades, his employers were responsible for withholding a
portion of his weekly pay to send to the benefits plan, now
the Massachusetts Bricklayers and Masons Health, Pension,
and Annuity Funds.
Gloria Churchill said her husband never paid much attention
to the withholding until he fell ill in the early 1990s and
was told by the pension fund he should have noticed he
lacked enough hours to qualify for payments. After he died,
she asked questions herself in letters and phone calls, but
said the union didn't respond.
Their children suggested she drop the matter. ''We felt it
was a lost cause," said daughter Dawn.
A pension fund official asked by the Globe about Churchill's
case declined to comment.
Churchill struggled to find help, though she had developed a
sharp sense of bureaucratic detail as a Brookline Town
Meeting member. Her state senator suggested a lawyer whose
$5,000 fee she couldn't afford. A Harvard legal clinic said
it lacked attorneys familiar with union law. The National
Lawyers Guild put her in touch with an attorney who found
the matter too daunting.
Eventually a Labor Department official mentioned the UMass
counselors. There, lawyer Jeanne M. Medeiros finally got
the union to provide in 2003 a detailed explanation for the
denial, then spent two years persuading it to change its
As with most pension appeals, the key lay in Social Security
documents that all citizens can retrieve from a Maryland
Ken Churchill's records showed large discrepancies between
the work credits he had on the union records and the
earnings and employers shown on the Social Security
documents, Medeiros said. In a letter dated Aug. 9, 2005,
the union pension fund described some assumptions it made to
show that a past employer didn't fully report Churchill's
hours. ''This required months of research of old, decrepit
records; some damaged beyond repair. Remember, most of
these records were kept on 3-by-5-inch cards; the personal
computer was unavailable," wrote a pension official.
Ross Kerber can be