The pension plan for thousands of Acme grocery workers and retirees in the Philadelphia metro area is expected to run out of money in eight years, if not sooner, depending on the stock market.
The United Food and Commercial Workers and Participating Food Industry Employees Tri-State Pension Fund has been in “critical and declining status” for a few years, but bad market returns in 2018 accelerated the reckoning.
The 33,000 members of the UFCW Tri-State plan are among the 1.5 million workers in multiemployer pension plans nationwide facing dissolution within the next decade. Already, 120 plans have shut down and received $1.4 billion in assistance from the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation, a federal insurance agency that pays workers a reduced pension should their union plan fail.
The federal agency has subsidized so many plans that it is now expected to run out of money itself by 2025.
“If there’s no pension reform, then more plans will end up in insolvency,” said Wendell Young IV, president of UFCW Local 1776 and chairman of the UFCW Tri-State plan.
The reform that Young and many labor leaders are pushing is the Butch Lewis Act, which would allow for the creation of a new federal agency to issue bonds and give 30-year loans to struggling plans. The plan trustees would use the loans to pay their liabilities. The bipartisan bill was introduced in the U.S. House in January but has opposition.
Critics say the loans would be a government bailout for labor unions.
Olivia Mitchell, professor of business economics and public policy at the Wharton School, called the Butch Lewis Act “a terrible tactic,” noting the loans could be invested in the stock market.
“It really doesn’t solve the problem,” Mitchell said. “We have to stop the bleeding right away and I think that the plans that are underfunded so dramatically should be frozen, should be shut down.”
One of the key problems with the UFCW Tri-State plan and many others like it is that there are fewer than 10,000 active workers for whom employers are paying into the plan and more than 23,000 currently receiving a pension or owed one at retirement age.
So, unless UFCW can get new grocers to join the tri-state plan, the numbers are likely to get worse.
“No employer wants to come in because they will be stuck with the liability,” Young said.
The tri-state plan, which covers grocery workers in Philadelphia, Delaware, South Jersey, and parts of Maryland, has been in trouble since the late 1970s and early 1980s.
At the beginning, three major grocers paid into the plan — Food Fair, A&P, and Acme. Food Fair went out of business in 1979. A&P closed in 1981, though about half the stores were saved under a Superfresh banner. Still, the plan was immediately in trouble.
“If a large base of employers leaves the fund, it leaves the rest of the employers holding the bag for the liability,” Young said.
When the stores went bankrupt, they weren’t required to make the plan whole for their pension debt.
Jeff Brown, owner of several ShopRites in Philadelphia, went into business in 1987 and his employees joined UCFW Local 1776, but he balked at joining the tri-state pension plan. UFCW Local 1776, which now represents 33,000 workers in food manufacturing and processing, liquor stores, convenience stores, retail groceries and some health-care facilities, had other pension plans for its other workers.
Brown joined one of the local’s smaller plans, the UFCW Local 1776 and Participating Employers Pension Fund. At the time, that pension plan was also in rough shape, but its liability was much smaller. As of last year, the Local 1776 plan, which has 5,200 participants, was 92 percent funded.
The tri-state plan, on the other hand, as of last year had 43 percent of the $883.7 million it owes current and future retirees.
The board overseeing the tri-state plan increased employer contribution rates and reduced future benefits for workers starting in 2000. But after the stock-market crash in 2008, much of the plan’s assets were wiped out. It has not recovered.
Retirees in failing plans are frustrated. One person who worked for nearly 30 years at Acme said he planned for his retirement, counting on a pension.
“I do need my pension … but that seems like it’s out of my control. I’m very [angry] about it,” said the retiree, who asked to not be identified for fear of retribution. “The union boys earn more than a fair living. It’s their job to make sure the pensions stay on track, but at best they can’t even do that.”
Rebecca Kolins Givan, a labor relations professor at Rutgers University, said that the situation is extra painful because during contract negotiations, grocery workers agreed to lower wages in exchange for good retirement benefits.
“Some of these jobs are very physically demanding," Givan said. "So it’s a real hardship for them to have planned on a retirement that they may not be able to have.”
Kristian Kephart, a part-time worker at the Acme at Fifth and Spruce Streets in Philadelphia, said he wasn’t even aware he qualified for a pension, let alone that it was in jeopardy.
“I’m just glad I have a job,” Kephart, 48, said as he took a smoke break out back. He does some cleaning and other side jobs to pay the bills.
Kephart wasn’t surprised to hear the grim news on the pension plan. Before the store was an Acme, it was a Super Fresh and went out of business. “All these corporations get bought out. … They take on the debt,” he said.
Young, the UFCW Local 1776 president, said the unions and employers have done everything they can. He said asking Acme, the biggest contributor, to pay more to the tri-state plan could put it out of business.
“We’re asking for some relief” from Congress, he said. “It’s hard to see how it’s sustainable."