How I Got Vested


Volume C, No. 3March, 2000

Sue Terry with Tim Dubnau

Last fall, the mysterious document arrived in the mail. It was the 1998 Annual Covered Earnings Report, issued by the AFM and Employers’ Pension Fund.

If, dear reader, you are anything like me, and your eyes glaze over when you see forms containing numbers and a lot of bureaucratic drivel, then you know how I felt. I knew I was supposed to understand this document, and that it contained important information that was relevant to me personally. I also knew that I would never see the money in my pension fund account until I was “vested,” whatever the hell that meant. I knew you got vested when you had the equivalent of five years’ worth of “vesting credits.” But a year wasn’t really a year – it was credits that equaled a year, or something like that. A certain amount of contributions equaled a quarter-year credit. A higher amount equaled a half-year, and so on.

Someone had tried to explain it to me the year before. I thought I understood it at the time but then it dropped down between the hemispheres of my brain, like coins that disappear through the cushions on the couch, or a Metro Card that slips out of your hand and floats gently down to land on the third rail. So when I tried to remember how to get vested, I couldn’t. But it didn’t really matter, because I was so far away from it anyway.

As all these thoughts romped amongst the neurons in my brain, I peered through the glaze on my eyeballs at the “name, rank and serial number” section of the form: Social Security number, check. Birth date, check. Gender, check. Marital Status, unknown. Oops, better fix that. Vested, yes. Cumulative Scale Wages – hey, wait a minute! Vested, yes? How could I be vested? They must have made a mistake; it must be a computer error. I wasn’t vested last year; what’s the difference between last year and this year?

I scanned the sheet. The difference was eight gigs at the Four Seasons Hotel and 65 Trust Fund gigs. That totaled $9,044.70 in wages, and $832.31 in pension contributions. But I still thought they had made a mistake. Maybe if I didn’t say anything, no one would notice. Curiosity having gotten the better of me, however, I brought the document into the union and showed it to Tim Dubnau. He explained to me how the feat had been managed, and I’ll let him explain it to you:

Tim: Over the years, while Sue was blowing her sax on the bandstand, her employers were writing checks to the Pension Fund in order to fulfill their obligations under their respective union agreements. Since 1987, “pension credits” had been accruing in Sue’s name. The Pension Fund kept track of these credits throughout the years and, by 1998, she had received a total of five credits. At this point, Sue became “vested.” That means she is guaranteed that, upon retirement, she will get a check from the pension fund every month for the rest of her life.

While Tim was explaining to me how I got vested, that old information that had dropped down between the hemispheres of my brain started bubbling and then it shot upwards, mingling with this new information. Man, what a rush. I grooved on it for a while, then came down when I realized that I had only done five union jobs in 1999. Sure, I was vested – but at this rate my pension wasn’t even going to keep reeds on my saxophone.

Tim: If Sue were single (which she is not) and assuming that she never played another union gig ever, at 65 she would collect $119.23 per month when she retired. The basic formula for a single pensioner is as follows: Take the entire amount of money that was contributed into the fund, divide by 100, and then multiply this number by 4.35. The final number is what the monthly pension check will be at age 65. It is possible for a musician to retire as early as 55, but the payout is lower.

Since Sue is married, however, she would sign up for the “Joint and Survivor’s Annuity Pension.” This just means that her surviving partner would get a check for the rest of his life after she passed away. But because a married person’s pension covers the life span of two people, the monthly pension check is calculated using a different formula, and the monthly check is somewhat smaller.

With only $119 a month to count on, I realized that the only way for a freelancer to end up with a decent pension is to play as many union jobs as possible. That means turning non-union jobs into union gigs. There are various ways to do this.

The pension fund is an employer’s pension fund, which means that the contributions must come from the employer, and not from you as the employee. Some bandleaders choose to incorporate their business, making the corporation the employer for their jobs and thereby enabling them to “pay themselves.” They can do this if their corporation signs a collective bargaining agreement with the union. The corporation, which legally becomes the employer, is obligated to contribute money for all the musicians on the job. There is also a form you can use to convert a single engagement into a union job, and have the employer cut two checks – one to you and one to your Pension Fund account.

Another way is to get employers to become signatories. That’s no easy task, yet the Organizing Department has gotten many employers to sign union contracts in the last two years. They’re on the case! Now Tim will tell you about the beauty part of the pension fund:

Tim: The American Federation of Musicians and Employers’ Pension Fund is one of the best-kept secrets of our union. It has more than one billion dollars in assets, and is growing. Let’s say that a single musician retires at age 65, with $20,000 in the fund. The monthly pension checks (which come to $870 per month) will add up to $20,000 after about 1.9 years. So, as the musician turns 67, pension checks will be “pure profit” for the rest of his or her life. Most other pension funds – and especially 401(k) plans, IRAs and other retirement savings – do not come close to matching this payout, which is guaranteed by the federal government.

When I look back at my little collection of union jobs, it certainly is a motley crew. A few Broadway subs, a bunch of club dates, hotel gigs, some TV and recording, and a whole mess of Trust Fund gigs. I never thought all those scraps could be sewn into a vest. Of course, being vested may not keep me from freezing when I’m 65 – but it’s a start. If anyone wants me, I’ll be working on the sleeves.

(Sue Terry, who plays alto sax, is an active member of the Jazz Advisory Committee. Please contact the union to learn more about your pension, and how the New Organizing Department can work with you to turn your non-union gigs into union jobs.)