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Pension Rights Center Calls on Retirement Plan Participants to “Ask for Paper!” in Response to New Anti-Consumer Labor Department Disclosure Rule

For Immediate ReleaseContact: Karen Friedman, 202-320-6518
July 27, 2020www.pensionrights.org

In response to the U.S. Department of Labor’s new anti-consumer “notice-and-access” disclosure regulation that goes into effect today, the Pension Rights Center is urging workers and retirees to tell their pension and 401(k) plans that they want to continue receiving their key retirement information on paper – not just by getting a text or email saying that the information is on a website.

The “Ask for Paper!” Call to Action is an educational effort aimed at alerting consumers about a new Labor Department rule that could adversely affect their ability to plan for retirement and prove their entitlement to benefits. It will provide workers, retirees, and their spouses with  practical information on how to protect themselves and will also educate members of Congress about how this rule will result in millions of workers and retirees no longer receiving critical information about their retirement plans and benefits. The Pension Rights Center is coordinating its activities with consumer groups and retiree organizations, unions and business groups.

Although studies show that there is a huge digital divide in this country – based on geography, education, income, race/ethnicity and age – the new rule gives retirement plans the green light to simply send individuals a notice by text or email telling them that key information is available on a website. Then it’s up to the workers and retirees to hunt that information down – effectively making this “notice-and-access” rule into a “no-access” rule.

“We are astonished that in the midst of an unprecedented health crisis and economic collapse that the Department of Labor would issue a regulation that will leave so many workers, retirees and their spouses in the dark about their retirement plans and benefits,” says Karen Friedman, the Pension Rights Center’s Executive Vice President. “At a time when people need information to protect themselves more than ever, this rule is like a cruel game of  Hide and Seek where  workers and retirees are blindfolded and sent  into an electronic abyss where they will have to fumble around searching for the information they will need to protect their future.”

Up until now, the Labor Department followed a commonsense rule: Plans sent out information on paper, through the mail, unless people regularly worked with computers or asked to go “paperless.” While retirement plans are still allowed to operate under the old rule, the practical reality is, most won’t. Notice-and-access is easier and cheaper for plans – but many workers and retirees will pay a steep price. Their chances of getting the information they are legally entitled to receive will be greatly diminished.

As part of the “Ask for Paper!” Call to Action, PRC has published three facts sheets on the new rule: A guide for consumers, a detailed summary, and a list of the “The Top 10 Worst Things” about the new rule.

 Here are some excerpts from the Top Ten list:

  • Say farewell to your 401(k) statement and other important documents. Workers and retirees won’t automatically get their quarterly statement showing how much money they have or where the money is invested. Those in pension plans won’t receive statements showing them how much they earned and whether their plan is adequately funded.
  • It won’t be easy to opt out of “notice-and-access.”. People will only get one initial paper notice letting them know they can choose to keep getting their documents by mail. But if they miss seeing that, they’re on their own. That’s why PRC is telling consumers to be proactive and tell your plan now you want to continue getting paper.
  • You may never see that the information on the website is available. As long as emails don’t bounce back, plans are-off-the hook. They don’t have to make sure you’ve read or opened the notice they sent.   
  • There’s little “notice” in notice-and-access. Once people get the text or email telling them there are documents available, people will have to copy and paste a web address into the browser (no hyperlink required). The notice won’t tell them if you need to act on an urgent matter, like appealing a denial of benefits. 
  • Documents can disappear from the website. The rule doesn’t require plans to store documents. Instead they will be able to erase documents from the website after one year or if they are superseded by a newer version, whichever is later. It’s like having plan information on an Etch A Sketch. Here today – wiped out tomorrow.
  • Without paper copies of benefit statements and summaries of plan rules, people may not be able to claim their earned benefits at retirement. People often stuff their retirement disclosures in a shoebox until they need them. Those records are critically important to retirees’ ability to prove their rights to benefits. When documents disappear, retirees’ rights to their benefits can also disappear.
  • Notice-and-access will be a nightmare for millions of people without broadband internet, computers, and printers. An estimated 15 million retirement plan participants age 55 and older do not regularly use the internet. About one-fifth of the population, including one-fourth of Black and Latino adults, depend on a smartphone for their only internet access – not suitable for reading complex information. Rather than addressing the digital divide those without access are told to go to a public library to use an insecure public computer to read, download, and print personal financial information and lengthy, plan documents.

The notice-and-access rule may sound arcane but will be widely adopted by plans and financial institutions and will have a huge impact on the retirement security of workers and retirees. PRC is alerting people that they have the right to ask for paper and that, if it isn’t clear how to do this, urging them to call and write their employers and plan administrators.

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The Pension Rights Center is a 44-year-old consumer group that works to promote and protect the retirement income security of workers, retirees, and their families.

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