Karen W. Ferguson

How do we define a life well-lived?

Karen W. Ferguson passed away in 2021. She was inducted as a Charter Fellow of the American College of Employee Benefits Counsel in 2000.

Karen was among a handful of women who graduated from the Harvard Law School Class of 1965. Following law school, she worked for consumer advocate Ralph Nader’s Public Interest Research Group. In 1976, Nader gave her a check for $10,000 and said, “Go make pensions an issue.” She turned this seed money into the Pension Rights Center in Washington, DC, which she ran for 45 years. In an interview with the Harvard Law Bulletin in 2002, she succinctly summed up the challenge which her organization faced: “We have essentially two classes of retirees: those who do really well and those who live almost entirely on Social Security, which pays less on average than the minimum wage. Those people aren’t making it.”

Karen led a paid staff that seldom numbered more than six. The limited resources available to the Center were but a minor obstacle to the fulfillment of the Center’s mission. She and her small team soon became a national force. By the time of her death, the Center boasted a network of 570 registered lawyers who took on referrals from the Center, often on a pro bono basis.

Karen was particularly concerned about the plight of retired women in the United States. She and her organization were instrumental in advocating for and drafting the Retirement Equity Act of 1984 and later became very involved in making sure the intended beneficiaries of this law gained its protections. In an interview with The Washington Post in 1995, Karen stated, “A large segment of women who contact our office are recently divorced women who didn’t know they could ask for a share of their husband’s pension in the divorce settlement and get survivors benefits as well. Sometimes their lawyers didn’t know to ask. They are left without the second-largest asset of a marriage after the house.”

In 1995, Karen published “Pensions in Crisis: Why the System Is Failing America and How You Can Protect Your Future” (written with Kate Blackwell), which described the struggles of many retirees and outlined possible remedies.

In addition to counseling individuals about their pension benefits, Karen often testified before Congress and advised legislators. Her last legislative victory was the Butch Lewis Emergency Pension Plan Relief Act, which was signed into law by President Biden three months after her death. The Act restored the pensions of approximately one million people whose retirement benefits had been drastically cut because of underfunded multi-employer pension plans.

“Karen Ferguson was the great, tireless champion leading the fight to protect endangered worker pensions,” Mr. Nader said in a statement. “Unassuming and unsung, she was both the brains and the national networker of efforts behind pension law. Her quiet, authoritative influence was felt on Capitol Hill, in executive suites, on the shop floors, and among specific pensioners needing immediate help.”

Karen’s passion, kindness, altruism, humanity and humility were a source of inspiration. She was that rare individual who left the world a better place and made anyone who knew her want to be a better person. She didn’t like fanfare, never craved the spotlight, was quick to credit others for accomplishments, and lived for fairness and justice. The Pension Rights Center has already helped millions of pensioners, and Karen’s legacy will live on to help millions more.

Karen continued to counsel individuals until her death at age 80. Her son Andrew noted that even in the last weeks of her life, Karen was on Zoom and on the phone with people who had lost their retirement benefits and had nowhere else to turn. “Here she is in the middle of dying and she’s helping out this individual in any way that she can. She did it because it was meaningful to her. Trailblazer. Pension advocate for millions of workers. Public interest lawyer extraordinaire. Hero. Best mom ever.”

Photo Source: The Decade Book, American College of Employee Benefits Counsel 2000-2010