Thursday, May 13, 2010

A Child's Garden of Misinformation

There's bits of ... how to put this? ... misinformation bandied about in the comments section of the Persuasion post below.

So that you don't have to venture down to an old post, we bring the discussion here. The bold/italics lines are from anonymous commenters, and the responses are from your ever-helpful union leaders:

In order to have "retiree health benefits" would you not have to be employed at a, or several, union shops solidly for 15 years?

No, the 15 qualified years required for retiree health benefits do not have to be continuous (which is what I think you mean by 'solidly'). From the time you start working, until you retire, you need a total of 15 'qualified' years to earn retiree health benefits through the union plan. We'll explain 'qualified years' below.

It is nice to see that the pension money, being deposited because of my work, will be going to people other than myself.

This is half false, half exaggeration. First, remember that there are two distinct union pensions which are automatic (i.e., you're automatically a part of both of them when you're working at a union studio). One is the Individual Account Plan. Every penny that goes into your IAP will only benefit you. This fund is not co-mingled with anyone else's IAP. Contributions to your IAP, made by your union employer, and the interest earned on your invested funds, stays in your account, which you receive at retirement. This plan vests after you've worked 400 hours, so it is not going to anyone else.

The second pension is the Defined Benefit Pension Plan. This requires five qualified years to vest. Once you're vested, you've earned a monthly stipend that begins paying out at retirement. The funds contributed on your behalf to the DBP go into a larger pool. Here it's possible to work several years at union studios but never vest, and so in a sense your DBP contributions could benefit other people if your union career is sufficiently brief. But you would still have your IAP waiting for you, along with any contributions you've made to the 401(k).

The problem is that almost every year, for nearly everyone employed there, there would be a hiatus for about one month. That would then negate the entire year for me, although money still went to the pension regardless.

I have been a member of the union since 1998. How many years do I have towards the pension? One.

Which means you only worked 400 or more hours in one calendar year. The pension plans, and the qualifying for the retiree health plan, are based on 'qualified years.' A qualified year is any calendar year in which somebody works 400 hours or more at a union studio. Someone working 40-hour work weeks would have a 'qualified year' after two and a half months. So if you worked at a union studio for 11 months out of each year (or even as little as three months out of the year) since 1998, you would now have 13 qualified years.

Management's incentive is to keep you employed to the bare minimum of their requirements to deposit funds toward the union. That keeps their bottom line in check and their stock happier. If they can lay you off or keep you temporary, they will because they pay less to TAG.

Cute, but not how things work. The studios do not pay a red cent to TAG. Your initiation fee and your dues are the only money that goes to The Animation Guild. The initiation fee is waived for people at a studio that goes union while they're working there. The dues range between $69 and about $100/quarter, depending on your job classification.

The studios DO pay into the Motion Picture Industry Health and Pension Plan on your behalf. For every single hour you work, they pay into a trust fund for your two pensions and for your health benefits. It doesn't matter if they employ you for 3 months a year on an 'at-will' basis, or whether they have you on a 7-year contract--they pay into the MPIHPP for every single hour you work for them.

For TAG, the incentive is to organize as many people at corporations as possible in order to maximize the corporate contributions to the health and pension funds to keep them solvent over the long term. In order to protect those funds, it is also in their interest to keep member requirements high enough so as to not jeopardize the funds.

This is also false. I'm beginning to think there's a management troll posting on our blog to try to discourage certain animators at a certain studio from going union.

The union has NO -- as in "zero" -- access to the funds that go into the health and pension plans. The MPIHPP is a trust fund that operates under layers of federal regulations, and is solely for the benefit of members. And the union has no incentive to keep qualifying requirements high. In fact, TAG has worked to do the opposite.

When the Defined Benefit Pension was first started, it required 10 qualified years to vest. Then the union got it reduced to 5 qualified years. When the Individual Account Plan was started up, it was set up with a FIVE year vesting time. Now, it takes ONE year (400 hours) to vest.

The health plan used to require about a year of work to qualify for benefits. Now the plan becomes active in half that time.

TAG fought for and won a 401(k) plan for its members fifteen years ago. It initially had a 6 month wait before one could join the 401(k). Then it was reduced to three months. Now it's virtually immediate.

So the history of TAG has been to push for better benefits, and more easily accessed benefits.

Worked for three years straight at a union studio and because of how the time broke up, I only had one year count. Have worked on other union projects for the greater part of a particular year but none of that has counted.

This is mathematically not possible. As stated above, a qualified year is simply 400 hours worked in a calendar year. It doesn't even need to be continuous, so if you worked all of January, half of July, and all of October, you'd have a qualified year.

A couple of examples to make this more clear. You started working 40 hours per week at a union studio on Oct. 1, 2007, and worked steadily until March 30, 2009. You worked 18 straight months. How many 'qualified years' do you have? Three, because you had at least 400 hours in each of those three years.

Example two: you started working 40-hour weeks on Nov. 1, 2007, and worked straight through until Feb. 28, 2009. In this example you have one qualified year, since in both 2007 and 2009 you were just under the necessary 400 hours. However, if you were working at least 50 hours per week in both 2007 and 2009, you would again have three qualified years.

Anyone who thinks they have earned qualified years that aren't being credited, contact the union office ASAP. We'll help you sort it out. And this is why we encourage members to keep their paystubs, and check the summary statement they get yearly from the MPIHPP.


Lump Sum Annuity said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...

The first year that I worked at a union studio, I was employed at that same studio for just short of a year. When the statement came the next year to tell me how many years I had been vested, the number was zero.

I was employed at a union studio starting in March of one year, worked through the next year, had a break at the beginning of the following year, then came back to work in May. Worked through the rest of that year. Received my statement the next year: number of years vested, one.

To find the President of the union calling someone a "management troll" is, at best, disconcerting.

When I was employed at a union studio, the hours were long (which is part of working in this industry I know) and there were plenty of people having to do unpaid overtime. The response from the union was always the same. Don't do the overtime, the only thing you can do is strike. There isn't anything that the union can do.

If we had managed to band together and walk, I am fairly certain that with the state of the industry said studio would have just hired new people. They would have been under no obligation to keep employed those who are on strike. I, for one, was not willing to sacrifice the income for my family just to prove a point.

In the times that I was unemployed, I received the unemployment pamphlet from the union but other than that heard nothing.

Fast forward to now where I work for "a certain studio." Suddenly I get a letter from the union. Then two, then three and four. Did I mention the phone calls? So far there's been three wanting to know if I had any questions about going union. I wish I could have got this sort of attention when I really needed it, while being treated badly at a union studio or while unemployed.

So pardon me if I seem a bit skeptical. At the "certain studio" the hours are rough but I fail to see how the union would change that. The management is relatively straightforward, unlike at other places where I have worked. If as much effort were put towards helping current members as there were towards gaining new studios perhaps I would feel differently.

Anonymous said...

The health of a pension fund is the most relevant determination of distribution of benefits. Terms of benefits are renegotiated and amended as federal law dictates - ie, distributions of benefits are adjusted in order to protect the long term solvency of the fund.

For example, MPIHPP pension plan, like many pensions, was listed in endangered but not critical status, the funding percentage falling below 80 percent, and was required to provide a funding improvement plan. Recent federal law exempted multi-employer plans from enacting an improvement plan, allowing it to retain its' 2008 funding status. For 2010, the published funding figure was 79.2%, endangered. Many defined benefit funded pensions have done much worse than MPIHPP.

In employer-funded defined benefit plans, there is no guarantee that a given level of contributions will meet benefits. Risks and rewards are assumed by the employer, not the individual. Goverment provides tax incentives to employers that participate in defined benefit plans for the risk employers adopt. Age bias and employer open-ended risk are the most common problems of defined benefit plans.

Today, the primary goal of organizing is to keep the fund solvent and keep benefits from sliding as much as they potentially could. It is difficult for anyone to refrain from using a constant tone of resignation when faced with this task.

Anonymous said...

Hi Steve,

Nice write up, it helps explain things better. I know people have questions about these sorts of things and we all sem to get bits and pieces or it fro various sources. I do have a question though, I remember hearing that we are not fully vested until we have worked 3 years past the age of 40 or something to that. Can you explain this. I have worked since 1996 in mainly union shops but as of now I am only 38 so do I need more years at a union shop to get my full retirement? Maybe a write up should be done on this blog that clearly outlines all the many questions that people have about retirement from the world of animation. Your post here is a great start and I appreciate it.

Kevin Koch said...

To the first anonymous poster, I apologize if something I wrote insulted you. However, the details that you're giving about hours worked and 'qualifying years' earned do not add up.

Did you investigate if a mistake was made? Have you ever taken your paystubs and benefits statement in to the union office to clarify why you're not getting the years credited that everyone else is? Did you investigate whether the studio you were working for neglected to report your employment to either the union or to the Motion Picture Industry Health and Pension Plan? Were you classified by your employer as an independent contractor? Were you working at a union studio, but not in a position that was within the bargaining unit?

I don't know your situation, so I can't say what can be done about it now, but I recommend that anonymous comments won't get you the relief you deserve, and I urge you to take the issue directly to the TAG office.

Finally, I'll say it plainly--anyone who is employed in a covered category for 400 hours or more at a union studio during a given calendar year has earned a 'qualified year' in the pension plans. If your benefits statement doesn't reflect that, you need to call the TAG office as soon as you realize there's a problem.

When I was employed at a union studio, the hours were long (which is part of working in this industry I know) and there were plenty of people having to do unpaid overtime. The response from the union was always the same. Don't do the overtime, the only thing you can do is strike. There isn't anything that the union can do.

I know for a fact that that is NOT what Steve Hulett tells people in that situation. And it's not what I've ever told anyone, either. The actual remedy is to file a formal grievance. Steve has filed overtime grievances, and has gotten back pay and money earned for many animators who were able to show that the had done unpaid overtime. And in those cases, the paranoia about getting fired for standing up has virtually always proven to be unfounded. Unfortunately, many people are afraid, and refuse to allow a grievance to be filed. There is nothing any union can do in that situation. People have to be willing to stand up, and not allow themselves to be herded around like farm animals.

Now you'll have to pardon me if I'm a bit skeptical. I have a friend who worked for years at the studio that now employs you. His estimate is that, by the time he left, he was owed about a quarter of a million dollars in unpaid overtime. Yep, it was that bad for many years. But because the place had no union contract, there was no one to stand up for him, and so he sucked it up, and got a union job as soon as he had sufficient experience. Now he's been at a union studio for years, and every hour he works gets paid for. Obviously, your mileage may vary.

Steve Hulett said...

To answer above points plainly:

400 contribution hours in calendar year = qualified pension year.

1 qualified pension year = vested Individual Account Plan.

5 qualified pension years = vested Defined Benefit Plan (monthly pension).

ANYONE who is abused and works uncompensated hours (and I assume here they are not working "On Call" -- a mutually negotiated category in the TAG CBA between exempt employees and employer), can call on me and I will file a grievance on their behalf.

If you have questions about anything, stop me in the hall (I was at two studios earlier today, so I'm visible and available), call me, or e-mail me and I will reply, clarify, provide answers.

Happy to assist. Happy to learn. Happy to enlighten. Just tell me what you want/need.

Steve Hulett said...

I remember hearing that we are not fully vested until we have worked 3 years past the age of 40 or something to that. Can you explain this.

Sure. What you're referring to (I think) is "Retiree Health Benefits."

A participant needs to work 15 years and 20,000 hours to qualify for Retiree Health Benefits. And three of those years have to be after the age of forty.

As stated above, you're vested in both the IAP and Defined Benefit Pension Plan after five qualified pension years.

Once you're qualified, there is no upper limit as to how large your pension benefits are. The more qualified years and contribution hours you have, the larger the pension benefits.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Steve for clarifying this info.

Personally, I think the union health benefits alone are worth it.

By the way, what number can we call to verify our hours and years?

Anonymous said...

Thanks Steve for answering the over 40 question that I asked about. I was confused about that. Sounds like I am fully vested and I hope to get in quite a few more years.

Anonymous said...

People just don get it. Our Union is awesome!

Jeff Massie said...

The MPIPHP phone number is (818) 769-0007 or (310) 769-0007; toll-free outside southern California, (888) 369-2007.

The extension for health eligibility information is 263; for pension info, ext. 627.

The health & pension plan website has useful information, such as the summary plan descriptions, in PDF format.

Anonymous said...

I appreciate the information, and the even-handed way you're presenting it. Makes me feel good about the Guild.

Steve Hulett said...

Anything we can do to help, just let us know.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Jeff and Steve!

I just called MPIPHP to check my
hours and eligibility

Thanks again

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