By David Brandolph
The recent death of Karen Ferguson, the Pension Rights Center’s founder, president and revered leader for nearly 46 years, has been a painful blow not only to those of us who knew, admired and loved her, but also to the millions of current and future retirees and their families who benefited knowingly or unknowingly from her tireless and brilliant work on their behalf.
While those of us at PRC already sorely miss her warmth, compassion, intelligence and guidance, we are heartened by the tributes to her life that have appeared in many newspapers including The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post and other publications.
These articles captured the essence of the towering, but unassuming, woman who inspired so many of us.
The Wall Street Journal summed up how she used her unique skills to help workers: “Karen Ferguson used her Harvard Law School training and skill at building coalitions to shape U.S. retirement policy and help thousands of retirees resolve legal and administrative problems or recover pension benefits owed to them.” Her efforts “safeguarded or secured retirement benefits for widows and widowers, divorced spouses, retired truck drivers and mine workers, religious-organization workers and many more.”
All three newspapers recounted many of her accomplishments.
The Journal described how she and PRC recently created an initiative “to smooth the administrative processes around dividing pensions in divorce,” by joining forces with plan experts, divorce lawyers, the judiciary, financial service and legal services providers, woman’s groups and others to find common ground solutions.
It said that she “spearheaded the creation of the Pension Counseling and Information Program, a national network of offices funded by the U.S. Administration for Community Living,” that has helped tens of thousands of individuals solve their pension and retirement income problems. The Journal also said that she “worked with employers, lawmakers and others to arrive at compromise rules reining in practices that often deprived older workers of years of pension growth when companies converted existing plans to so-called cash-balance formulas.”
According to the Washington Post, Karen Ferguson and the Pension Rights Center “were instrumental in advocating for and drafting new regulations and laws, including the Retirement Equity Act of 1984 (REA), the Tax Reform Act of 1986 and the Butch Lewis Emergency Pension Plan Relief Act, which was signed into law by President Biden in March.”
The REA strengthened protections for widows and divorced spouses who were sometimes cheated out of their share of retirement benefits by former husbands who had, unknown to their spouse, secretly signed away their rights. The New York Times said that the law, due to the efforts of Karen and PRC, among other things, “required qualified pension plans to provide automatic survivor benefits and allow for waivers only with the consent of both the participant and the spouse.”
Karen also fought vigorously to help solve the multiemployer pension crisis. She was thrilled to see the Butch Lewis Act signed into law in March of 2021, a law that the Journal said, “likely extended the solvency of a federal insurance fund for multiemployer pension plans by at least 30 years and ensured that more than three million people will receive the pension benefits that retirees and workers earned on the job,” referring to the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation’s estimate in its 2021 annual report.
PRC is dedicated to continuing Karen’s legacy and will be working diligently on short-term reforms as well as working toward her long-term vision of a future where everyone has a financially secure retirement. As the New York Times put it, one of Karen’s long-range goals was to establish a “universal secure and adequate retirement system on top of an expanded Social Security system, to provide for those many private-sector workers who have no pension or retirement savings plan to fall back on.”
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