Mary Rich worked for a hospital in northern New Jersey for 25 years, first as a registered nurse and later as an executive. One of the job’s benefits was a traditional pension that she expected to receive at retirement. Now that benefit seems unlikely to be around by the time she retires.
Rich’s financially troubled former employer, the Hospital Center at Orange (HCO), shut down in 2004. The pension plan currently has $5.25 million in assets, which are being distributed at the rate of $2.7 million per year. By the time Rich reaches retirement 12 years from now, the money will be gone.
Under normal conditions, a pension plan such as HCO’s would have been back-stopped by the Pension Benefit Guarantee Corporation, the federally sponsored agency that insures most private sector pension plans. When plans go belly up, PBGC takes them over and continues to make payments; most participants receive 100 percent of promised benefits. But HCO’s case wasn’t typical. A year before it closed, HCO had declared itself to be a “church plan” ”“ meaning that it was claiming an exemption to federal pension law and PBGC coverage.