More than $1.2 billion. Yes, that’s billion with a “b.” That’s how much we protected or recovered in fiscal year 2012 for workers who participate in private-sector employee benefit plans and their beneficiaries. Most of this total was reported for participants in 401(k) or similar retirement account plans, and employee stock ownership plans. But the bottom line is this: $1.2 billion represents hard-earned money that many retirees need now, and others are relying on for a secure retirement in the future.
The mission of my agency, the Employee Benefits Security Administration, is to ensure the security of the retirement, health and other workplace-related benefits. We inform workers about how to take advantage of the benefits they earn on the job as well as their rights under the law, such as the right to continued health insurance coverage under COBRA when they’ve been laid off or otherwise separated from a job.
We also work with employers who offer their workers benefits, but need help navigating often complex legal requirements. In addition, our Voluntary Fiduciary Correction Program encourages employers to voluntarily self-correct certain violations of the law. In 2012, employers restored more than $12 million through this program to workers participating in benefit plans and their beneficiaries.
Unfortunately, not all employers do the right thing and play by the rules. Sometimes, we have to bring civil and criminal actions to enforce the law. Here’s a breakdown of fiscal year 2012:
- 3,566 civil investigations were closed
- 2,570 of these uncovered violations of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act
- 100 resulted in lawsuits filed to recover assets for plan participants
And through working with the Justice Department, as well as state or local prosecutors, 117 individuals were indicted for criminal actions related to an employee benefit plan, such as stealing from 401(k) accounts to fund company operating budgets or pay for personal expenses.
There are few things harder in life than losing a job and facing the challenge of providing for your family without a steady stream of income. Now imagine what it would be like if you were ready to retire, but the savings you built up over a lifetime are frozen in a retirement plan that has been abandoned by a failed company. I’m happy to report that in fiscal year 2012, we worked with the asset custodians of abandoned plans to recover more than $12 million for participants in these plans. Some people were able to roll their money over into a new retirement savings account, while others opted to use their money right away to fund day-to-day living expenses.
Finally, it gives me great pleasure to highlight EBSA’s often overlooked and unsung heroes: our Benefits Advisors. Benefits Advisors are the front line for EBSA, fielding calls, emails and letters each day from those in need of assistance. They are highly trained professionals, often with legal and accounting backgrounds, who solve problems that workers and beneficiaries have in receiving their employment-based retirement, health, disability and other benefits.
The following numbers testify to their dedication: In fiscal year 2012, they helped resolve 239,520 cases, and they secured more than $260 million in benefits for plan participants and beneficiaries through informal dispute resolution.
Year after year, we get the job done. Workers participating in employer-sponsored health and retirement benefit plans who feel that they have been denied a benefit inappropriately or have questions about benefits laws can contact an EBSA Benefits Advisor by visiting www.askebsa.dol.gov or calling 866-444-EBSA (3272).
Phyllis C. Borzi is the assistant secretary of labor for employee benefits security.