As the Gerontology Institute’s Pension Action Center (PAC) celebrates its 30th anniversary, the center counts more than $70 million in retirement benefits recovered for more than 11,000 clients across its service area of New England and Illinois. Ellen Bruce and Jeanne Medeiros, the two women who launched and led the center for its first two decades, know well the satisfaction of doing work that truly makes an impact in people’s lives.

“Quite a few of those cases really felt life-changing,” Medeiros says. “It’s such a concrete victory when you can tell someone, ‘You’re going to be getting $400 a month for the rest of your life.’ It is such tangible help.”

30th anniversary emblem for PAC

Bruce founded the Pension Action Center as part of UMass Boston’s Gerontology Institute in 1994 and served as its director for 20 years. Medeiros worked as the center’s managing attorney for more than 15 years and followed Bruce as its director in 2014. Medeiros retired in 2018, when Anna-Marie Tabor was hired to direct the center.

Bruce brought a background in legal services work for older adults when she joined UMass Boston in the early 1990s. As public policy director for the Gerontology Institute, she worked alongside a small handful of gerontology faculty members as they built a new doctoral program, the second such offering globally.

“When the federal government issued a request for proposals for pension assistance projects, I thought, ‘This is right up our alley,’” Bruce remembers. Along with several similar projects across the country, she won funding to start the program that eventually developed into PAC.

Launched in 1994 as the Pension Assistance Project, the center’s initial scope was limited to Massachusetts residents. In 1998, when the center received additional federal funding to expand its service area to all six New England states, Bruce hired Medeiros. Initially she worked as a regional coordinator, networking with agencies across New England to make them aware of the center and its services. Gradually Medeiros moved into the role of managing attorney, supervising all the legal casework conducted by as many as six volunteer pension counselors and often a part-time law student intern.

“She’s a really good lawyer, very smart, and a good motivator,” Bruce says of her long-time colleague. Medeiros’ previous legal work had been with nonprofit and municipal organizations. “My focus was always on helping people to achieve results that they couldn’t on their own,” Medeiros says, adding with a laugh, “I have the distinction of practicing law for 30 years without ever sending a bill to a client.”

With Medeiros managing the client cases, Bruce focused on administrative duties, including fundraising. In 2012 the RRF Foundation for Aging (formerly The Retirement Research Foundation) awarded the center a grant to expand its services to Illinois. That expansion along with Bruce’s continuing successes at fundraising are two key elements of PAC’s evolution, says John Kimpel, a PAC Advisory Board member for the last 15 years. Two other key elements Kimpel cites: strengthening the relationship between PAC and the university, which he and his wife have boosted by endowing a paid internship program for undergraduate students, and increasing the center’s marketing and outreach efforts so more people know of its services.

Kimpel, who is retired from career in law and retirement finance, also served on the hiring committee that chose Tabor as the new director in 2018. In her five years at PAC, Tabor grew the center’s programming, outreach, and fundraising work while hiring key staff members and steering the center through the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2023, Tabor accepted a visiting professorship at UMass Dartmouth School of Law. Tyler Compton, who Tabor hired as PAC’s staff attorney in 2019, is managing the center as lead attorney.

Advocacy at the national policy level

The Pension Action Center has a long history of making an impact beyond its service area. PAC has often coordinated with the Pension Rights Center—a national nonprofit, nonpartisan consumer organization—to raise issues and work to address them more systemically. PAC took a lead role, for example, in pushing to expedite the way the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation processes claims.

Medeiros worked for years on the issue of recoupment, in which pension plans discover their own administrative errors led to overpayments to retirees, often over many years. Suddenly trying to collect that money presents a serious hardship for retirees. The overpayment issue was a blind spot in the Employee Retirement Income Security Act, or ERISA, of 1974. “There was no statute of limitations for collecting overpayment, and no restrictions on charging interest for the overpayment,” says Compton. PAC’s advocacy on the issue contributed eventually to the SECURE 2.0 Act, which became law at the end of 2022 and finally addresses the blind spot.

Much of the work of PAC’s volunteer counselors continues to be a combination of “detective work” as Kimpel calls it, to track down pension plans created decades ago and patiently working through “impenetrable bureaucracies,” Medeiros says, that include phone-tree answering machines leading to more phone trees. “You know, ‘Your call is very important to us but we’re never going to answer it,’” she laughs.

“The cases were legally complex but emotionally satisfying,” she says, and the center’s clients have been quick to show their gratitude for the perseverance. Medeiros remembers two compelling cases involving widows trying to locate survivor benefits. In both cases, the pension plans’ records about the employees’ length of service were incomplete or intentionally misinterpreted, claiming the husbands had not accrued enough service to be eligible for benefits. “We pursued the cases quite far and succeeded,” she says. “It was very gratifying. One woman’s daughter wrote me a letter, saying she knew her father was looking down on us.”