Workforce.com

Boeing Proposes Ending Defined Benefit Plan for New Employees

Boeing's proposal would amount to a 40 percent reduction in benefits from current levels. The union's contract with Boeing expires Oct. 6.

September 11, 2012

Chicago-based Boeing Co. is proposing closing its defined benefit plan to Puget Sound, Washington-based new hires in the engineers union and placing them in an "enhanced" 401(k) plan, said Matthew Kempf, benefits director, contract administrator, for the union, the Society of Professional Engineering Employees in Aerospace.

Kempf said Boeing's proposal would amount to a 40 percent reduction in benefits from current levels. The union's contract with Boeing expires Oct. 6.

"It's not good. There's no question about that," Kempf said in a telephone interview.

Doug Adler, Boeing spokesman, said the proposal is in line with market trends and peer companies and allows Boeing to "better manage retirement plan expenses and reduce financial risk."

"The proposed retirement benefit for SPEEA-represented new hires is a market leader compared to the plans offered by our aerospace competitors to their new hires and will give our new hires an opportunity to build significant savings for retirement," Adler said in an email.

On June 15, the union proposed extending the current contract with minor adjustments. Kempf said the union's proposal included money necessary for acceptable benefits regardless of retirement plan type, but he said Boeing was committed to offering only a defined contribution plan for new hires.

"If Boeing is not going to match benefit for benefit, we prefer to stick with the defined benefit plan," Kempf said.

Compounding matters is that the union has not even received a complete comprehensive proposal from Boeing. "It's difficult to see how terrible it is," Kempf said.

Boeing's proposal includes a 3 percent to 5 percent age-based automatic company contribution plus the continuation of the company match on employee deferrals to the 401(k) plan totaling a 9 percent to 11 percent total contribution from the company each year, Adler said.

At the beginning of the year, Boeing and the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers agreed on a deal that kept new hires in the pension plan and provided retiree medical costs. Boeing's offer to SPEEA shifts the medical benefit costs to employees. Kempf said IAM probably took less of an increase in benefits than in previous negotiated contracts, but the contract was agreed upon about 10 months before formal negotiations were set to begin.

All SPEEA members who are Boeing employees are currently part of a DB plan and a 401(k) plan with matching contributions. Kempf was unsure if Boeing's proposal includes opening a new 401(k) plan.

Boeing's defined contribution plan, the Boeing Company Voluntary Investment Plan, had $33.3 billion in assets as of Dec. 31, according to its most recent 11-K filing. The defined benefit plan, Boeing Co. Employee Retirement Plan, had $13.8 billion in assets as of Jan. 1, 2011, and was 100 percent funded; Kempf estimated SPEEA members represent about 50 percent of the plan's liabilities. All of Boeing's DB plans had a combined $50.8 billion in assets as of Dec. 31, according to its most recent 10-K filing.

Boeing closed its DB plan to all nonunion new hires starting in 2009 and has since negotiated DC-only retirement benefits in 23 collective bargaining agreements, including SPEEA-represented engineers in Wichita, Kansas, Adler said.

Kevin Olsen writes for Pensions & Investments, a sister publication of Workforce Management. To comment, email editors@workforce.com.

Stay informed and connected. Get human resources news and HR features via Workforce Management's Twitter feed or RSS feeds for mobile devices and news readers.