The Gerontology Institute’s Pension Action Center is part of the McCormack Graduate School at UMass Boston. It provides free legal assistance to low- and moderate-income workers, retirees and their survivors in the six New England states and Illinois whose pension benefits have been wrongfully denied. This is one in an occasional series of posts about cases the center pursues on behalf of its clients.
An Illinois man who reached his normal retirement age in June of this year discovered he had a big pension problem. The company he expected to pay the pension said it didn’t exist.
The man came to the Pension Action Center for help through the Illinois Pension Assistance Project. PAC counselor Susan Hart and attorney Sophie Esquier soon discovered the event that caused their client’s immediate problem had taken place more than 40 years earlier. The event was the Vietnam War.
The client had worked for GTE Automatic Electric from May 1971 to October 1983, a length of time that clearly gave him vesting rights in the company’s pension plan. But during that period, he had temporarily left his job to serve in the military. His period of wartime military service covered more than two years between 1972 and 1974.
That absence from work reduced his total time on the job below the 10-year threshold for pension vesting, according to Verizon Communications Inc., which had eventually assumed responsibility for the plan. It told PAC’s client this year that he was not entitled to a pension benefit because his period of military service had been deducted from his work history for vesting purposes. It determined he had only accrued 8.480556 years of vesting service.
Like many cases that involve decades-old documentation and a complicated corporate history, the numbers in this one don’t all add up. It isn’t clear how Verizon came to its specific calculation of vesting service. But that wasn’t the point of the PAC argument supporting its client’s right to his pension benefit.
In correspondence with Verizon, the center told the company their client was entitled to his pension because it was obligated to count his period of military service as part of the vesting calculation under the Veterans’ Reemployment Rights Act.
Under the VRRA, people reemployed following military service must have their previous benefits restored, as if they had never left employment. The Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act later clarified that adequate reinstatement following military service includes pension benefit accrual.
That was a good argument. The plan conceded and added time to the client’s vesting total, making him officially eligible for the benefit he had earned.
“We were pleased we were able to help our client secure the pension benefit he deserved,” said Esquier. “His military service never should have counted against him when his vesting service credit was being calculated.”