The federal government’s response to widespread personal tragedy has nearly always involved adjusting the rules to retirement plans. So many of these rule changes come at benefit professionals with great speed and little guidance, yet we need to make them work. This is because the work we do is critically important to people’s lives, though we rarely see it because of the focus on making the damnable rule changes somehow fit into our already overburdened processes and systems. This impact also shows up when the tragedy is personal and not just societal. So I invite you to reflect, during this holiday season of celebration, on the actual, real, individual impact of what we do. Beyond the administrators, the lawyers, the actuaries, the accountants, the publishers, and the consultants is buried very real meaning.
I first posted this story in 2009, labelling it “ERISA and Mom.” Many of you may recognize it. Its lessons are enduring, and worthwhile an occasional remembrance. Hopefully, it may help remind us of things we often let pass, and give us some measure of perspective around what we do and for what we have to be thankful.
On the rare morning when the breeze would blow in from the east, from the river, the orange dust from the prior night’s firings of the open hearth furnaces at Great Lakes Steel would settle onto the cars parked in the street. My Mom’s father worked there; my Dad’s father was a furnace brick mason at Detroit Edison; my father a tool and die maker at Ford’s Rouge Plant, not far down the road. Yes, I am a native Detroiter-and from Downriver, no less.
ERISA wonks such as ourselves tend to get lost in the press of details which seem to flow non-stop from our regulators and legislators in D.C. It is this background that reminds me that it is sometimes helpful to step back and see the personal impact of the things we do, even on the plant floor.
A few years back, a good friend of mine who ran the retirement plan operations of a large insurance company asked me to speak about ERISA to a meeting of his administrative processing staff. At the time they were still struggling with some of the more difficult administrative processes related to the QJSA and QPSA rules. Here’s what I told them:
My father died at the Rouge Plant in 1970, after 20 years with the company. Back then, the normal form of benefit under a defined benefit plan was a single life annuity, covering the life of only the employee. There was no such thing yet as a qualified joint and survivor annuity or a qualified pre-retirement survivor’s annuity. This meant that my father’s pension died with him. My mother was the typical stay-at-home mother of the period who was depending on that pension benefit for the future but was left with nothing. With my father’s wages topping at $13,000 annually and five kids at home, there was also little chance to accumulate savings.
The Retirement Equity Act of 1984 (a copy of which I still keep in my office) was designed to change all of that. By implementing the requirement of a spousal survivor annuity, a whole class of non-working spouses received protection which was desperately needed. So in that speech to my friend’s administrative staff, I asked them to take a broader view-if just for a moment- of the important task they were being asked to implement. It was valuable social policy with real, human effect which they were responsible for pulling off, and they should take a measure of pride in the work they were doing.
My point is that there are very important, and very personal, consequences often hidden in the day to day “grunge” of administering what often seems to be nonsensical rules.
It is in this spirit which we do give thanks for our blessings, including the opportunity to be in a profession where the law really does matter to people’s lives and can make a difference.