$81.2B Rescue For Union Pensions Greenlit For COVID-19 Bill

By Emily Brill
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Law360 (March 2, 2021, 6:51 PM EST) -- A Senate official has confirmed that Congress can include a fix for the $81.2 billion union pension funding crisis in its coronavirus relief bill, which is moving through Congress via a special fast-tracked process reserved for budget-related legislation.

The decision was handed down Monday night by Senate parliamentarian Elizabeth MacDonough, whose duties include determining which items belong in bills slated to pass through the budget-reconciliation process.

Senate Finance Committee Chair Ron Wyden, D-Ore., said Monday in a statement that he was "pleased our pension protection package will remain in the critical relief bill."

"This economic crisis has hit already struggling pension plans like a wrecking ball, and the retirement security of millions of American workers depends on getting this package across the finish line," Wyden said.

Karen Friedman, executive director of the advocacy group Pension Rights Center, said lawmakers had attempted to structure their fix for the union pension crisis "as it needs to be to get into the reconciliation package."

Now that the parliamentarian has confirmed they succeeded in that effort, the next stop for the bill is the Senate floor. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer told reporters this week that he's confident the bill will clear the chamber.

Friedman said the retirees her group fights for certainly hope that'll be the case.

"Retirees throughout the country have their fingers crossed," Friedman said. "This is the biggest chance we've seen in a long time."

The $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan, which cleared the House on Saturday, would provide direct assistance to roughly 200 financially struggling union pension plans through the federal government's safety net for these plans, the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp., which would in turn receive the money from the U.S. Treasury.

A Feb. 23 report from the Congressional Research Service estimates the fix would cost $81.2 billion.

MacDonough, the parliamentarian, also OK'd another benefits-related measure late Monday: subsidizing health insurance premiums for laid-off workers, also known as Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act premiums.

Wyden praised the parliamentarian's decision, saying Monday that "workers who have been laid off need affordable health care for their families now more than ever, and helping people pay their COBRA premiums will make that a reality for millions."

--Additional reporting by Andrew Kragie. Editing by Vincent Sherry. 

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