Saturday, August 21, 2010

Bankrupt Newspapers Leave Employee Unions and Government Corporation Holding the Pension Bills

It has not been a good month for newspaper unions at bankrupt newspaper companies or the government corporation that insures pension funds. As part of their reorganizations, a number of bankrupt newspaper firms are not paying money owed union pensions or are quietly letting the guaranty pick up the tab for retiree costs.

  • Unions of Philadelphia Newspapers LLC (The Inquirer and The Philadelphia Daily News) were forced to accept 12 cents on the dollar for the $12 million the bankrupt company owned to employee pension plans as part the reorganization plan.
  • The Chicago Sun-Times off-loaded $49.1 million of its underfunded pension obligations for 2300 retirees and employees to the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp. The paper and it suburban subsidiaries were purchased out of bankruptcy without the new owners assuming the pension obligations.
  • The Dayton News Journal dumped $15.4 million in underfunded pensions payments on the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp. , which will ensure 1,100 current and former employees receive benefits owed to them. The newspaper and its assets were purchased out of bankruptcy by Halifax Media, but it did not take on the pension liability.

The Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp. is a federal corporation designed to protect pensions when company-run pension funds collapse or cannot pay agree benefits.

These types of problems occur when money due for benefits is not paid into pension funds or money is removed from company-run funds by the company. When this occurs companies use the money for other purposes: increasing liquidity, paying bills, giving executive bonuses, etc. However, this creates problems if the company ceases operating or if liabilities of underfunded pension obligations weigh too heavily on the balance sheet.

Existing laws allows employers to take money from company-run funds if they are overfunded, but do not require them to immediately fully fund them when they are underfunded. Overfunding and underfunding, however, are normal conditions caused by fluctuations in stock and bond markets in which pension funds are invested. Because overfunding and underfunding tend to even out over time, companies using the funds like a bank can create problems. Even when pension funds are not run by companies, delays in paying obligations create problems if the company closes or goes into receivership.

Newspapers across the U.S. have carried large stories about pension payment problems at other bankrupt companies, but coverage of the problems at their newspaper colleagues have drawn scant attention.