AUD staff recently spoke with a disabled Ironworker in Atlanta, Georgia Local 387 who has been having significant issues with his disability pension. The 30-year Ironworkers member was taken by surprise several years ago when his local suddenly eliminated the entire disability pension program. He has since been fighting to get it reinstated, but contacted AUD after four years of getting nowhere.
According to documentation provided to AUD by the Ironworker, the local’s Board of Trustees sent out a document prior to March 1, 2011 stating: “Beginning March 1, 2011, the Plan will no longer provide enhanced benefits to those Employees who become disabled as specified under the plan.” This change did not affect anyone who became disabled prior to March 1, 2011. The Board’s statement clarifies that “Normal or Early Retirement benefits will remain unaffected […] only the Disability Benefit is being eliminated and only for anyone who fails to qualify for Disability Benefits by February 28, 2011.” This means that anyone who applied after that date would have to qualify for early (age 55) or normal (age 62) retirement benefits under the plan in order to receive benefits, even with a Social Security Disability Award indicating that the individual is “totally and permanently disabled.”
The Ironworker, who was in his early 50s when he became disabled, is still under the age of 55 and unable to collect even early retirement benefits from his home local in Atlanta. He was approved for Social Security Disability in a letter dated September 28, 2013.
The issue allegedly started when a number of members submitted false claims that were paid out. Instead of trying to recoup its losses, the local dropped the program entirely, cutting off members with legitimate claims and causing members to lose their credits earned toward any potential future disability pension. Despite any instance of false claims, according to the Annual Funding Notice for the year ending February 28, 2014, the local’s entire pension plan was over 90% funded and in good shape overall. The issue was quickly brought to the attention of the International, who referred the matter to Larry Brown, the Southeastern States District Council President. The Ironworker and Mr. Brown spoke at length about the situation.
Soon after bringing the issue to the attention of the International, the local’s Business Manager and Financial Secretary resigned; he was replaced by Robert Duffield, who is currently in that position. The Ironworker believes that Mr. Duffield may be willing to reinstate the disability pension, but has yet to find a way to do so.
Unfortunately, our caller is not the only person in this local who has faced hurdles to getting his full disability pension. Less than two weeks after the first caller contacted AUD, we heard from a second disabled Ironworker in the Atlanta local who had also been denied a disability pension in 2013. This caller, however, is 55, and qualifies for the early retirement pension. But the early retirement pension comes with a 42% penalty, significantly reducing the second caller’s income. His only other option appears to be waiting until he is old enough to collect the full pension.
So what is going on in Ironworkers local 387? The pension plans appear to be well funded and members who have been working for over 30 years have clearly paid into the plan, not just for retirement, but also for disability benefits. Even if there were fraudulent claims, this does not seem to be adequate reason to discontinue the disability pension plan entirely, effectively punishing all members for the bad behavior of a few.