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House Passes Pension Bill Requiring Equity for Women

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Washington--Legislation that will require equity in pension payments to women was approved unanimously by the House of Representatives last week.

That bill, HR 4280, and another version recently adopted by the Senate, now go to a House-Senate conference committee in which differences between the two pieces of legislation must be resolved.

Both bills would lower from 25 to 21 the maximum age at which employers can exclude workers from participating in pension plans governed by federal law and would reduce from 22 to 18 the age at which a worker included in a pension plan begins the 10-year process that leads to an assured pension, or vesting.

Both pension-equity bills also would amend the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 to revise rules that allow employers to disregard an employee's prior service after the employee has been absent from the work force for a period of time. Under current law, women who leave the work force to have children can lose their pension credits. The amendments would allow employers to disregard previous service only after an employee has been out of the work force for at least five years.

"This legislation addresses the special work history of many women,'' said Marge Roukema, Republican of New Jersey, during House debate on HR 4280. "Women tend to enter and leave the work force more frequently and tend to have longer periods of absence than men. Historically, wives have had to leave their jobs to permit family mobility for their husbands. Also, women tend to have longer absences from the work force in order to care for young children," she explained.

In addition, the bills would revise current law to prohibit an employee from waiving survivor benefits without the consent of his or her spouse.

The present law does not require that a spouse participate in a decision to waive survivor benefits. Many pension plans allow employees to opt out of survivors' benefits in order to obtain larger benefits during the employee's lifetime.

The proposal also would clarify the law to allow state courts to divide pension benefits when couples divorce. "Problems have arisen in this area because of uncertainty as to the relationship between federal and state law with respect to pension plans," Representative Roukema said.

The major difference in the legislation adopted by the House and the bill approved by the Senate is that the House measure would require pension benefits to be paid to the spouse of an employee who has vested benefits under a pension plan if the employee dies at any age prior to retirement.

The Senate bill would guarantee benefits only if the employee dies after age 45.

The present law allows the forfeiture of all pension benefits if an employee dies before reaching retirement age.--cc

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