Zoe Roberts worked as a checker for the Harmon's grocery store chain in Utah for some nine years. During most of that time she did as many of the other 900 Harmon's employees did - socked away at least 2 percent of her salary in a profit-sharing pension plan set up by the company.
Harmon's side of the deal was to match the 2 percent contributions and invest the money wisely so it could be paid out for retirement benefits.When Roberts decided to quit her job in 1988, she was convinced that nine years of savings had accumulated into a healthy nest egg for her. But she was wrong.
Roberts tried to collect her money and says she was given the runaround. Eventually she found out why. The pension plan had lost millions of dollars. Now Roberts and seven other Harmon's employees are taking the only route available to them to bring the pension plan trustees to account for what the eight employees say was their personal loss of $250,000. They are suing.
The federal government won't solve their problem, even though the Labor Department investigated after the fact and found out that the fund managers had made millions of dollars in loans to a Harmon's family business. Because the Labor Department has 300 regulators to police nearly 900,000 pension plans in the country, the losses in the Harmon's pension fund weren't noticed until it was too late.
What happened to Zoe Roberts could happen to anyone putting money into a private pension plan and trusting that the money will be well taken care of. Employee benefit plans make up one-third of America's investment capital - $2 trillion - and no one is minding the store.
When Harmon's employees complained to the Labor Department, government investigators went to Utah and found that the pension plan was losing money - nearly $2 million in 1987 alone, according to an audit. The Labor investigators found that the trustees of the plan were loaning money to a Harmon family business, according to a complaint filed by the Labor Department against the plan trustees.
The plan trustees said they were victims of a slow market and bad investment advice but claim they did nothing wrong. A lawyer for one of the trustees told us that all of the employees "have been treated fairly." The lawsuit is awaiting trial in Utah.
When the Labor Department finished its investigation, it ordered the trustees removed and ordered Harmon's to put $4 million back in the pension fund. The company complied.
But many employees still expect they won't get back half of what they put in over the years. Roberts' lawyer, Susan Dallimore, told our associate Dean Boyd that the Labor Department's action was a "slap on the wrist." But a source who worked on the settlement said the department had little choice.
There are hundreds of cases like this one. Given the mild penalties, it is easy to see why.
Karen Ferguson, who heads the Pension Rights Center in Washington, says that the Harmon's employees got more than most. They were "lucky that the Labor Department even checked it out at all."