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.

Two sisters in Chicago had been employed for many years by catalog retailer Spiegel Inc. during their working lives. But after they both passed retirement age, the sisters couldn’t find any sign of the pension benefits they had earned.

The women contacted the Pension Action Center for help in the summer of 2017. The case involved several common factors that make it difficult for retirees to locate and obtain their benefits: Corporate mergers and acquisitions, bankruptcy proceedings and questions as to whether former workers were actually covered by union plans rather than company pensions.

“It can be extremely difficult for retirees to trace their former employers through decades of business transactions and, sometimes, bankruptcy proceedings to determine what happened to their pensions and who is responsible for paying the benefits they worked many years to earn,” said PAC attorney Sophie Esquier, who worked on the Spiegel case.

Spiegel had been mailing retail catalogs across the country for more than 80 years when the company purchased Eddie Bauer Inc. in 1988. But Spiegel went into Chapter 11 bankruptcy by 2003 and Eddie Bauer emerged as an independent business under its own name again. One catch: Eddie Bauer was responsible for the Spiegel pension plan going forward.

That arrangement came to its own unhappy ending, when Eddie Bauer itself filed for bankruptcy protection and the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp. became the new trustee of the old Spiegel pension plan.

None of that should have affected the sisters and their right to pension benefits they had earned. But by time the Pension Action Center contacted the PBGC, no records of their benefits could be found. The PBGC told the sisters they may have had pensions managed by the Teamsters, their union when they worked at Spiegel.

But the center soon established that the women had never been covered by a Teamsters pension and indeed were beneficiaries of the company-sponsored plan. The center established the work histories of the sisters by obtaining a Detailed Earnings History for each from the Social Security Administration.

Presented with the evidence, the PBGC agreed the sisters were both entitled to benefits from the old Spiegel pension plan. It agreed to make a retroactive payment of over $11,000 and an ongoing monthly benefit of $200 per month to one of the women. It agreed to issue the other a retroactive payment of more than $23,000 and $217 in ongoing monthly benefits.

“This was a great outcome,” said Esquier. “Our clients might have ended up with nothing after their pension records were not found. We’re very happy to have helped them obtain the benefits they deserved.”