After Enron, calls grow for pension-law fixes
When Polaroid Corp. declared bankruptcy in October, workers didn't take it on the chin only in the form of layoffs.
Many also had retirement nest eggs lined with stock in the instant-photography firm. One of them was Betty Moss.
Laid off last July after 35 years with the company, she lost $200,000 in retirement funds as her stock in the photography firm imploded - and she now feels devastated.
It's a plight now common to thousands of workers at other American companies - many of them long-time pillars like Polaroid - whose stock has plunged and brought worker 401(k)s down with them.
The highest-profile recent case is Enron, the energy company that declared bankruptcy earlier this month. But retirement accounts have been ravaged at other firms, including telecommunications giant Lucent Technologies, that have floundered but not gone bankrupt.
The financial mess has prompted an uproar in Washington and the financial community over practices at many companies that encourage workers to invest in their employers' stock.
While the plans are arguably well-intentioned, critics say they violate a key rule of responsible investing: Diversify.
In both the House and the Senate, Democratic legislators are pushing for a law barring workers from investing more than 10 percent of retirement contributions in their employers' stock.
Last week, the House Capital Markets and Oversight Subcommittees held a joint hearing on the Enron case, concerned about the disappearance of $63 billion in stock wealth and the huge losses of 12,000 workers in a 401(k) plan, the majority of was Enron stock as of a year ago.
Particularly troubling many employees is the fact that while nest eggs are clobbered, their bosses are often walking away from corporate failures with millions in wages and stock options they cashed out.
Mrs. Moss, who was a senior manager at a Polaroid operation in Atlanta, wrote the bankruptcy judge to express her "heartfelt objection to [company chairman] Gary DeCamillo's request for millions of dollars to give retention bonuses to 45 'key executives.' These are the same people who have already become wealthy while riding Polaroid Corporation into the ground."
Polaroid executives dispute the charges of mismanagement.
But bankruptcy Judge Peter Walsh last week agreed at a hearing in Wilmington, Del., that proposed bonuses are too generous. He allowed a $1.75 million "progress payment" in January and February.
Like millions of other rank-and-file employees, Moss found herself locked into company stock in her retirement plan. In her case it was an employee stock ownership plan (ESOP).
More often it is a 401(k), but in either case, company incentives often coax workers to invest in a single firm's shares. The motive, particularly with ESOPs is for employees to increasingly act as owners, thus improving corporate performance. They will share in any resulting stock gains.
But share prices can also go down.
Moss, during a time in 1988 when Polaroid faced a takeover bid, agreed to allow
8 percent of her pay to be deducted to buy her company's stock, then at about $32 a share. The idea was to put the stock in "safe hands" as well as to make workers think like owners. Employee badges have written on the front, "Employee Owner."
"That's a bit of a joke right now," says Moss, with the stock essentially worthless.
Hundreds of companies use stock in lieu of cash as their matching contribution to employees' tax-deferred 401(k) plans. That decision reduces the firms' cash outflow and boosts the bottom line.
Company rules bar workers from selling the stock, mandating, for example, that they hold it until they reach age 55 or put in a large number of years with the firm..
"In part, it was my own stupidity," admits Michele Jalbert, a former Polaroid employee who lost some retirement funds when she put some of her own contribution into Polaroid stock in a 401(k) plan that is twin to its ESOP. "You go with your heart and it is not always the wisest thing."
In Massachusetts, where Polaroid is headquartered, Secretary of the Commonwealth William Galvin has introduced legislation to let workers sell company stock held in their 401(k) plans - regardless of whether it came from their own contribution or an employer match.