Nonprofit leader quietly pledges to protect pension benefits


Karen Ferguson has used her Harvard Law School education and skills to build coalitions to shape U.S. retirement policy and help thousands of retirees resolve legal and administrative issues or recover their retirement benefits owed to them.

Ms Ferguson, who died on December 23 at the age of 80, has dedicated her career to studying the intricacies of U.S. pension laws and trying to improve them. As the founder and president of the Pension Rights Center, a Washington, DC-based nonprofit, she brought together lawmakers, employers, pension professionals and others, often with competing interests, to find solutions. compromise and help transform them into new or revised legislation.

The results have protected or secured retirement benefits for widows and widowers, divorced spouses, retired truck drivers and minors, workers in religious organizations and many more.

“It entered your consciousness without getting upset,” said J. Mark Iwry, a non-resident member of the Brookings Institution think tank who worked with Ms. Ferguson on retirement and retirement issues there and as a treasury official to Clinton and Obama. administrative. “She knew the best way to do it for people who needed help was to hold back the passion and channel it, so that it didn’t bother people, so you wanted to go along with her and that you wanted to help him. “

After hearing from widows who found themselves without retirement income, Ms Ferguson successfully lobbied for what became the Retirement Equity Act of 1984, which in part required a spouse’s signature when retirees choose to receive slightly higher monthly payments during their lifetime in exchange for waiving benefits. for their surviving spouse. She also pushed for a provision clarifying that state courts could divide pension benefits between divorced spouses without breaking federal law.

She led the creation of the Pension Counseling and Information Program, a nationwide network of offices funded by the US Administration for Community Living that helps employees and retirees.

She also worked with employers, lawmakers and others to reach compromise rules limiting practices that often deprived older workers of years of pension growth when companies converted existing plans into so-called payroll formulas. Treasury.

When laws or regulations fell short of her expectations, Ferguson worked for years, if not decades, to improve them. Recently, she has sought to facilitate the administrative processes surrounding pension sharing in divorce cases, which she had worked on early in her career as a pension advocate.

Ms Ferguson has spent more than seven years persuading Congress to overturn provisions in federal law that allowed trustees of troubled multi-employer pension plans to cut payouts to already retired workers. Bringing hundreds of former truck drivers and other retirees to Washington to lobby lawmakers, she argued that once won, pensions should not be cut. Legislation passed last spring provided funds for struggling plans, but requires them to maintain promised benefit levels.

The legislation has likely extended the solvency of a federal insurance fund for multi-employer pension plans by at least 30 years and has guaranteed that more than three million people will receive the retirement benefits that retirees and workers earned at work, the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp., a pension insurer, estimated in its 2021 annual report.

A night owl who occasionally sent fresh ideas to colleagues at 3 a.m., Ms Ferguson also took calls at the Pension Rights Center from worried retirees. Such hands-on work helped her identify problems and focus on solutions. “Even when she couldn’t really help people, she often saw trends,” said Karen Friedman, now CEO of the Pension Rights Center.

Recently, Ms Ferguson was working with lawmakers on both sides on legislation to reduce the chances of retirees being forced to repay pension overpayments caused by administrative errors.

“She was selfless, flexible and pragmatic,” said Richard Shea, a longtime benefits lawyer at Covington & Burling who both worked with Ms. Ferguson and at times represented clients with competing interests. “The only driving force behind it all was: How do we make sure ordinary people have a decent retirement income? “

Ms Ferguson often spoke at length with retirees seeking help, even when they had no business to pursue. “If that’s all I can give them, I’ll give it to them,” recalls Norman Stein, a law professor at Drexel University who has worked closely with Ms. Ferguson on policy and litigation. of retirement. “Just having someone by your side is a mini victory.”

Ms Ferguson, who had colon cancer, died at her home in Washington.

She was born as Karen Ruth Willner on February 17, 1941 in New York City. Her mother, Dorothy K. Willner, was a sociologist who campaigned at the United Nations for consumer protection policies. His father, Sidney Willner, a lawyer, helped the Hilton hotel chain in its international expansion.

The family lived in Germany during part of Karen’s childhood. She graduated from Bethesda High School, Maryland, then earned a philosophy degree from Bryn Mawr College in 1962 and a law degree from Harvard in 1965.

In the early 1970s, she worked for consumer advocate Ralph Nader. “Ralph dropped a bunch of newspaper articles about pension abuse on my desk, and I was immediately drawn to – so many people had been hurt in so many different ways,” she said. in the Harvard Law Bulletin in 2002. Mr. Nader finally offered him $ 10,000 to start a nonprofit organization focused on pensions. She founded the Center for Pension Rights in 1976.

She met her future husband, John H. Ferguson, while studying at Harvard. He also became a lawyer and worked for the National Labor Relations Board. Mr. Ferguson passed away in 2017. Ms. Ferguson is survived by a son, two grandchildren and a sister.

She sometimes joked that she must be the lowest paid member of her law class at Harvard. Yet, she said of her nonprofit career, “the rewards are immense. We deal directly with individuals and are often able to help them in one way or another. She was still working on retirement matters until shortly before her death.

Write to Theo Francis at [email protected] and James R. Hagerty at [email protected]

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