A pension found, with a little help

By Matt Carroll
Globe Staff / December 24, 2009

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Barbara Michaluk of Plymouth had retired and knew she was entitled to a pension, even if it was small. But the company the bookkeeper had worked for in the 1960s and ’70s had long since been swallowed and reswallowed in a series of corporate mergers.

After searching fruitlessly for 1 1/2 years, Michaluk was on the verge of giving up when she reached out to the New England Pension Assistance Project at the University of Massachusetts Boston, a federally funded organization that works to connect retirees with lost pensions.

The end result: a monthly pension of $123.

“Without that organization at UMass, I don’t think I would have found it,’’ said the 66-year-old Michaluk. “It is very complicated, and I had come to the point where I was going to give up.’’

Michaluk’s is a success story, but others are not so fortunate. Only about one in three can be helped by the pension project, said officials. Often, people did not work long enough at a company to qualify for a pension or there are extenuating circumstances.

Still, the organization says it has helped about 5,100 people get $36 million worth of pension benefits over the past 15 years.

It’s difficult for professionals, never mind other people, to track down a pension lost in a maze of corporate mergers, said Grace Healey, an official with the organization, which is part of the Gerontology Institute. People get frustrated, knowing that they are owed the money but they can’t reach it.

“You get angry and don’t know how to deal with plan administrators,’’ she said. “We are in a position to take on some of that burden.’’

Michaluk’s pension history began in the 1960s when she got a job in accounts receivable and payable for Masoneilan, then a manufacturer of valves in Norwood. When she left in 1978, she was handed a pile of paperwork about her future pension benefits, which she carefully filed away. (A current company with the same name is not responsible for the pension.)

“I knew it wasn’t a very big pension, but I knew if I lived to be 80 and was starting to run out of my IRA, a couple of hundred dollars could be food,’’ she said. After leaving, she became a self-employed bookkeeper, with a roster of clients. The Woonsocket native still works part-time. But through the years, she didn’t forget about her little pension due from Masoneilan and held tight to the paperwork.

Michaluk isn’t the type to be easily put off by bureaucrats who can’t be bothered to help her find her pension. She lives in a neat home, rides horses, works three days a week, dresses fashionably, and has no intention of letting the aches and pains of growing older slow her down.

“I don’t intend to give in’’ to old age, she said, “as long as they keep making hair dye.’’

More than a year ago, after retiring, she looked up her old pension paperwork. But she learned the company had gone through several mergers.

In some ways, she was well prepared to figure out who should pay her pension. She has run her own business for decades and was used to working out knotty problems at work. But trying to sort out this situation was overwhelming, she said.

“I was thinking I didn’t have the ability to follow the audit trail,’’ she said. “I didn’t know how to find out what kind of agreements went from company to company.’’

Her chase led to one dead end after another, a twisting trail of corporate names and unclear responsibility.

She finally found another retiree from the company who pointed her toward New York Life, which was handling his pension payouts. But the New York Life representative said her name and Social Security number were not on the list.

Finally, she called the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp., a government-created organization that insures the pensions of 44 million Americans. They couldn’t help much, but mailed her a pamphlet on how to track down her pension, which led her to the New England Pension Assistance Project.

Within days this past summer, the group had a pension counselor working on her behalf for free. The trail led back to New York Life, where her pension was found. The problem, said a New York Life representative, was that the company had the wrong name, address, and Social Security number for Michaluk.

She is getting her monthly pension now. And she is a big believer in helping people get the pensions they are owed. “It’s not about me or the lousy 123 bucks,’’ she said. “If someone else can find a pension they were looking for, that would be great.’’

Matt Carroll can be reached at

The help is out there
Those interested in tracking down a lost pension can call the New England Pension Assistance Project at 888-425-6067. More information is available at