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Heidi Heitkamp: Protect pensions now for millions of Americans

Former North Dakota Sen. Heidi Heitkamp
Olivia Michael | CNBC

There's been a lot of talk these days about what we can do to help working families. It's an important conversation to have, but one that continues to overlook an increasingly urgent concern for workers: the pension funding crisis.

Our seniors are supposed to be in their golden years. But instead of retiring with the pension they earned, many people in multi-employer plans are facing a troubling and dark future without the peace of mind they were expecting. The multi-employer pension plan system is failing. More than 120 plans are in critical and declining status, and one of the largest failing plans is projected to run out of money by 2025. Millions of American workers can no longer count on financial stability.

Take George Ganje, for example, a retired SuperValu employee from Riverdale, North Dakota. George worked hard his whole life, often taking on night shifts or missing out on his children's school events to provide financial security for his family. When he found out his pension may get slashed, that feeling of stability disappeared. As George once told me, "this possibility has caused sleepless nights, a boatload of frustration, and too much worry for my family. I'm too darn old to go back to work full time."

Across the country, there are millions of grocers, miners, bakers, construction workers and truck drivers with stories like George's. In North Dakota alone, there are more than 12,600 multi-employer participants. Nationwide, the number is closer to 10 million. These people are our family, friends, and neighbors. Without loud, frequent calls to action, who knows when Congress will fix this mess?

I know firsthand, having served on the bipartisan, bicameral Joint Select Committee on the Solvency of Multiemployer Pension Plans during my time in Congress. While I was there, we weren't able to accomplish what was needed to protect retirees, and that means the financial security of countless Americans remains on the line.

But just because we couldn't get to a solution then does not mean I'm ready to give up now. If anything, I'm more concerned and more compelled to push for a compromise approach. Every month that Congress waits to act on the multi-employer pension crisis brings plans closer to complete collapse. The latest numbers from the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (PBGC), the funding backstop for these and other plans, show inaction is driving the U.S. towards $90 billion in liabilities by 2028. The PBGC itself is expected to dry up and go under even sooner by 2025. It's time to step up the fight.

Maybe because folks don't often hear about this issue in their daily lives, we as a country don't fully appreciate just how devastating the collapse of the multi-employer system could be. Millions of Americans' retirement savings would be slashed or disappear. Retirees, and even young workers who have yet to retire, could see their benefits plummet to just over $1,200 per year – hardly enough to even make a dent in living expenses.

If that happens, it's bad news for all of us. Public assistance programs could wind up strained from the added need. Millions of dollars in tax revenue and thousands of jobs would be lost. It's estimated the collapse of the Central States Pension Fund, just one of many failing plans, would lead to a $5 billion drop in national GDP. The trajectory toward another economic crash would speed forward.

Numbers aside – and the numbers are frightening – there are also real people, like George Ganje, and their families to consider. I wake up every day and think about how I can help hardworking Americans, rural Americans in particular, do better. Fixing the multi-employer pension plan crisis is one clear way to positively change the lives of so many people.

The urgency of this issue must not be diminished, but I do have hope. Just last month, the House of Representatives passed the Rehabilitation for Multiemployer Pensions Act, and the Senate reintroduced the Butch Lewis Act. Those actions were first steps toward coming together to find compromise and fix the problem this year. We also saw the launch of the Retirement Security Coalition, led by my former colleagues from across the Capitol, former Speaker John Boehner and former Rep. Joe Crowley, who are working to advance a common-ground approach.

The multi-employer pension plan crisis presents a massive problem. With a little political courage and a lot of thoughtful compromise, it is a problem we can fix. Demanding a Congressional solution today will save the retirement funds of millions of retirees and American workers. George Ganje said there were "so many things I missed out on" during his working years. He shouldn't have to miss out on retirement, too.

Heidi Heitkamp, a CNBC contributor, served as the first female senator elected from North Dakota from 2013 until 2019.

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