Traverse City Record-Eagle

Body & Soul

October 19, 2013

Church pensions unprotected

PASSAIC, N.J. (AP) — Working at St. Mary’s Hospital was all about making do. When supply shelves emptied, respiratory therapist Lori-Ann Ligon made frantic calls to compatriots at nearby medical centers, arranging meetings on the fly to barter for blood gaskets. For a couple of years, she and other managers were told the endless budget squeeze left no room for raises.

But when St. Mary’s outlasted two competitors to become this city’s lone hospital, executives heralded a new era: “Not just health care. Human care.”

That care, though, only went so far.

“Presently, the retirement plan’s trust is severely underfunded,” the CEO wrote to employees in early 2011, blaming investment losses and the hospital’s decision not to put any money into one of its pension plans for more than a decade. “As a federally recognized church plan,” he continued, St. Mary’s had the right to do that — and there was no government pension insurance to fall back on.

The news angered many St. Mary’s workers, but their situation is not unique. Pension shortfalls at some religiously affiliated hospitals, businesses and social service agencies are raising new alarms and spotlighting a largely overlooked gap in the law protecting Americans’ retirement benefits.

“I felt betrayed, not only by the health care system, but by the Sisters of Charity, and I got betrayed by the church,” said Armantina Pelaez, a former crisis counselor at St. Mary’s, which quietly converted its federally insured pension plan to an uncovered church plan in 2001. The hospital’s pending purchase by a for-profit company will see Pelaez and others get a fraction of their expected pensions. “They don’t practice what they preach.”

A pension is, essentially, a promise. For millions of workers counting on pension checks for retirement security, that promise comes with protections. Even as many companies move to freeze the benefits and eliminate them for younger workers, federal law requires most private employers with pension plans to contribute to them and insure them, in case they fail to honor their obligations.

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