The Association of U S West Retirees



To draw pension, some must hunt for it
Sleuthing, challenges help recover millions
By Ross Kerber, Staff Writer
Boston Globe
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 collect.

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 nonprofit groups.

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 1970s.

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 mind.

As with most pension appeals, the key lay in Social Security documents that all citizens can retrieve from a Maryland warehouse.

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 reached at