Changing jobs? Keeping track of pension key as regulator warns of 'stranded' benefits

Two years ago, Ihor Weryha finally felt ready to retire.

The Mississauga, Ont., resident had spent 40 years working in the petrochemical industry, most of which had been evenly split between two companies.

But as he began gathering the documents he’d need to activate his pension, Weryha discovered a big problem: his former employer said it didn’t have any files from his two decades with the company.

"I didn’t exist in their records whatsoever," said Weryha, 68.

"It was essentially 20 years so it would be, mathematically, about half my pension. Not getting it would have meant I couldn’t retire."

Weryha said he spent five months going back and forth with the company trying to sort out the error, but to no avail.

That’s when he turned to the Financial Services Regulatory Authority of Ontario for help.

Through Weryha’s records proving his decades of work for his former employer, including pension statements on corporate letterhead, the province’s financial services regulator was able to secure the pension funds owed to him.

FSRA, an independent regulator, says there are almost 200,000 pension plan members in the province who have lost track of their plans, with more than $3 billion in associated benefits "stranded."

Andrew Fung, the organization’s acting executive vice−president of pensions, said the problem is more common than most people realize, especially for those who move around a lot throughout their careers.

"These days, unlike years ago when people would stay with one job until they retire, it’s not uncommon for people to have six, seven different jobs before they retire," he said.

"They might have left their money in the pension plan to draw on later when they retire but they may have since moved on, or changed address or changed contact information."

It’s also possible to lose contact with one’s pension information when a company restructures or gets bought out, said Fung, adding there’s increased risk of a mix−up when a company changes its name or relocates its head office from one country to another.

In Weryha’s case, he said there had been changes within the corporation where he used to work more than two decades ago.

"That’s the kind of black hole that you’ve got to be wary of," he said.

"It wasn’t something that was planned or on purpose. It just was an admin error. And I happened to be the admin error."

Certified financial planner Zena Amundsen, who specializes in retirement planning, said tracking and organizing pension information is key to her work, especially with clients frequently bouncing between jobs throughout their careers.

"We’re trying to be the keepers of their tracking of all their financial life. That’s the key, I think, is to make sure there’s a relationship because it gets overwhelming and people do start to forget," she said.

Amundsen, owner of Astra Financial Services in Regina, said employees leaving a job should check in with the company if they haven’t received a package outlining details about their pension.

She said it’s never too late to contact a former employer requesting that information.

"If a person thinks that they have pensions at different places, the first thing you do is pick up the phone and call that previous employer and ask to speak to their department that can get you that information and see if there’s anything there," she said.

But if you are still missing key forms, Amundsen recommended reaching out to the financial services regulator in your province, as Weryha did.

Fung said it’s important for employees to frequently review and make sure they understand their pension statements, update key information such as spousal status, beneficiaries and contact information, and be proactive when it comes to decisions on how much to contribute or investment options available.

In Ontario, FSRA also has an online portal where members can search for their pension plan information, including plan registration number, plan name, or sponsor name.

"It’s actually very important to keep good records of your employment and also of your benefit entitlement along the way and really start understanding the value of that pension," said Fung.

"When you are 20, at your first job, you may get a pension but you didn’t think much about it. And when you get close to retirement, that pension is worth quite a bit."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 29, 2024.

Sammy Hudes, The Canadian Press