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    N.E. Teamsters facing $5.1b pension shortfall, putting retirees at risk

    Teamsters Local 25 truck drivers headed out to Texas with a truckload full of donated supplies to help Hurricane Harvey victims in Houston.
    Nicholas Pfosi for The Boston Globe
    Teamsters Local 25 truck drivers headed out to Texas with a truckload full of donated supplies to help Hurricane Harvey victims in Houston.

    A pension plan covering more than 72,000 truck drivers and warehouse workers represented by the New England Teamsters union is the nation’s second-most-underfunded multi-employer pension plan and is on track to run out of money within two decades, according to a study.

    The study, released Thursday by the pension consulting firm Cheiron Inc., details a worsening crisis for US multi-employer plans. Under those plans, multiple small businesses, such as trucking companies and liquor distributors, jointly contribute to a pension fund. Many are in industries such as transportation, manufacturing, and construction, where many companies have shut down, leaving fewer active workers to support a growing number of retirees.

    Nationwide, the study said, 121 multi-employer plans covering 1.3 million workers are underfunded by a total of $48.9 billion and have told regulators they could slip into insolvency within 20 years.

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    It said the Burlington-based New England Teamsters and Trucking Industry Pension Plan has an unfunded liability of $5.1 billion, second only to the $22.9 billion liability of the Teamsters’ Central States Fund, which also covers some workers in Massachusetts.

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    “These plans are in really bad shape,” said Joshua Davis, a principal consulting actuary at Cheiron who compiled the data by analyzing the plans’ public filings. “From a participant’s standpoint, it’s a horrible situation. You’re banking on having a pension you’re going to retire on. If we don’t find a solution, that pension’s not going to be there.”

    Sean O’Brien, cochairman of the New England Teamsters plan and president of Teamsters Local 25 in Charlestown, said 60 percent of the local’s 12,500 members are covered by the plan. He said plan officials are working to stabilize it, but also looking to Congress for relief.

    The New England plan, O’Brien said, has created an alternative funding structure letting newly organized employers and some legacy employers contribute without being subject to withdrawal liability penalties if they leave the plan. That’s eased the concern of employers that they could be tapped to help make up a growing funding gap.

    “We feel like we’re moving in the right direction,” O’Brien said. “Our goal is to make sure this fund remains solvent” to make workers’ retirement secure.

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    The deteriorating state of multi-employer plans has created uncertainty for tens of thousands of workers who are nearing retirement but aren’t sure they can depend on the financial cushion they’d long anticipated. Many lift heavy cargo daily and have suffered injuries to their backs and knees.

    “Workers and their families are counting on these pensions,” said Frank Sullivan, a 59-year-old truck driver from Rockland who delivers beer throughout the Boston area for Anheuser-Busch. “I feel I need to work longer than I planned to,” said Sullivan, who is covered by the Teamsters’ Central States plan. “Many of the guys I work with are also working longer than they expected.”

    The stress on multi-employer plans is part of a larger rollback of the pension system, once a pillar of American retirement security. Over the past several decades, many employers, especially in the private sector, have been phasing out pension plans and transitioning to 401(k) retirement plans, which shift the financial risk and the burden of making contributions to employees.

    A pair of Democratic lawmakers, Representative Richard Neal of Springfield and Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio, have filed legislation to offer federally guaranteed bonds that would shore up multi-employer pension plans.

    Separately, a bipartisan congressional committee, formed earlier this year, was tasked with coming up with recommendations to address the plans’ shortfall by Nov. 30, but thus far hasn’t done so. The panel is scheduled to dissolve on Dec. 31.

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    Neal said his legislation, called the Butch Lewis Act, would let the US government “backstop” loans issued by the Treasury Department. It has drawn support from labor and business groups, he said, but hasn’t yet gained enough backing to move forward in Congress.

    “The problem becomes compounded as the months and years go on,” Neal said.

    “The only way to turn this around is through a cash infusion,” said John Murphy, an International Brotherhood of Teamsters vice president who’s leading the union’s efforts to recapitalize the pension plans. If the plans are allowed to fail, he said, the federal government will be on the hook for promises made to workers over many decades.

    “This is a freight train coming down the road at the American government, the American economy,” Murphy said.

    A federal agency called the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation guarantees a minimum pension to participants even if their plans fail. But the agency’s insurance program covering multi-employer plans, which covers about 1,400 plans across the country, including the New England and Central States plans, is set to run out of money by 2025.

    Two much smaller Massachusetts-based multi-employer plans, the Chicopee-based Roofers and Slaters Local 248 Pension Plan and the New Bedford Fishermen’s Pension Fund, were also listed among the 121 plans whose condition is deemed “critical and declining.” Both are on track to be insolvent within the next two decades, according to the study by Cheiron.

    The study said the fishermen’s plan, which has 535 participants, is set to run out of money in 2025, while the roofers and slaters’ plan, with 207 participants, will run out in 2033.

    While single-employer and public-sector pension plans also face funding shortfalls, the crisis is most acute among multi-employer plans because of deregulation and consolidation in their industries, nonunion competition, and stock market losses that have depleted the plans’ assets.

    Robert Weisman can be reached at robert.weisman@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeRobW.