It took navigating a company merger, the sale of pension assets, and COVID work absences, but a volunteer counselor at UMass Boston’s Pension Action Center was able to track down and recover a client’s pension benefits.

It has taken a little over a year of phone calls and emails, but Jean Wilson is now receiving her pension from a former employer. Wilson’s odyssey illustrates the paper chase many people face as companies merge or are bought and more employers move from pension plans to employee-funded 401Ks. Her story also illustrates how the counselors at the Gerontology Institute’s Pension Action Center can expedite the recovery process.

Wilson (not her real name) was approaching her 65th birthday in 2021 and wanted to track down one of her pension accounts. She learned that the former employer, a large company where she worked for five years as a reimbursement specialist in the marketing department, had been purchased by another large corporation, which later terminated its pension plans and sold off its pension assets.

Wilson also learned that the insurance company that now held the pensions had no record of her benefits. She was referred to the state attorney general’s office, then to the U.S. Department of Labor. Unfortunately, not even the Department of Labor could locate the benefit for her.

Then Wilson learned of the Pension Action Center (PAC), thanks to an article about the center in her UMass Boston alumni magazine—she graduated in 1976 after majoring in sociology and government. PAC offers free legal counseling and works to recover retirement benefits for workers and retirees who live or worked in New England and Illinois.

Wilson says that her PAC volunteer counselor got right on top of the hunt and managed to find a contact at the corporation who took an interest in following through with the inquiry. Wilson worked for the original company for a relatively small length of time, but she had good evidence that she was due a pension, including a copy of the letter that her employer gave her in the late 1990s when she left, stating that she would receive a pension when she turned 65.  She also had a letter from the Social Security Administration documenting her pension benefit. 

It took the PAC counselor three tries before she found the insurance company that was holding Wilson’s pension. The COVID-19 pandemic also complicated recovery efforts. “We opened a ticket with the employer in July 2021,” says Anna-Marie Tabor, PAC’s director. “Every few weeks we would send an email or call. It was the pandemic, so lots of people were working from home and most of the information wasn’t online. Pension records are often kept in hard copy, and it was hard to access archived paper documents during pandemic shut-downs.”

In November 2021, the main corporate contact wrote a memo to her supervisors saying she thought the company should pay the claim and why—and got it approved. But right in the middle of her efforts, the woman got COVID and had to be away from work for a few weeks.

“My counselor at the center was so responsive and so conscientious about keeping me updated. She told me how long it should take to hear back with each step,” Wilson says.

The benefit Wilson will receive is small enough that her family told her it wasn’t worth the hassle of tracking it down. But she sees it differently. Taken monthly over the course of her lifetime, it works out to be about $72 a month. “My mother was eligible for a pension of $70 a month,” Wilson remembers. When her mother was in her 90s, living in a nursing home on a limited budget, they enjoyed a monthly ritual of going out to lunch at their favorite salad bar. “It’s the same principle now,” she says. “Once a month, I want to take my grandchildren to lunch.”