ARI SHAPIRO, host:
This is Morning Edition from NPR News. I'm Ari Shapiro.
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
And I'm Renee Montagne. And as the stock market has plunged, you can count me among those who are afraid to even look at their 401(k)-type retirement plans. Still, here's some news about how things are even worse for some. A small but growing number of companies are suspending the matching company benefits where employers chip in to match their employee's contributions. NPR's Jenny Gold reports.
JENNY GOLD: It's definitely not a pension, but for tens of millions of workers, a matching contribution into a 401(k) retirement account is as good as it gets. A typical plan might have the employer matching contributions dollar for dollar up to, say, 4 or 5 percent of the employee's salary. But some companies are cutting back. General Motors, Dollar Thrifty, Frontier Airlines, and real estate giant Cushman & Wakefield are just a few of the companies suspending their 401(k) match. Newspaper publisher Lee Enterprises hasn't suspended its contributions, but recently the company informed workers its making cuts.
Mr. MIKE UTTER (Pressman, St. Louis Post Dispatch): My name is Mike Utter. I have been in the newspaper business since 1965.
GOLD: Utter is a pressman for the St. Louis Post Dispatch, one of the more than 350 newspapers owned by Lee. He's also president of his local pressman's union.
Mr. UTTER: We put the sheets or web the press up, set the press up, plate the press up, set the color, do the maintenance on the process. It's a blue-collar job.
GOLD: For most of his career, Utter had a pension plan. But in January 2007, Lee Enterprises got rid of it. The company boosted its contributions to the 401(k) plan to nearly 8 percent. Now that's been cut by more than two-thirds. Given the condition of the stock market, some people might not be too worried about less money going into their already-depleted 401(k)s. But Utter says he feels betrayed by his company.
Mr. UTTER: And I realize, you know, business is bad, and the newspaper business is bad. But I don't think it warrants this.
GOLD: Utter goes way back with the newspaper. His father was a pressman before him, and he's been at the paper for 40 years.
Mr. UTTER: We were good employees and have tried to make this company a big success, and it's a slap in the face to me personally over that. And I think it's a disgrace to do that to employees.
GOLD: Dallas Salisbury is the president of the Employee Benefit Research Institute in Washington. He urges employees like Utter to have a different perspective. For many businesses, tough economic times mean they have to make serious cuts to stay viable.
Mr. DALLAS SALISBURY (President, Employee Benefit Research Institute, Washington): If I have to save a million dollars, would I rather let people go or adjust the 401(k) contribution for a temporary period of time?
GOLD: Better a temporary suspension than layoffs or health care cuts, he says. And for Lee Enterprises, Mike Utter's employer, that's exactly what it came down to. Company spokesman Dan Hayes didn't want to be recorded, but in a phone conversation, he explained that ad revenues are down at his newspapers. Lee Enterprises is still profitable and it's suffered less than many other newspaper publishers. He says, still, cutting the 401(k) match was a way to avoid further staff reductions. Alicia Munnell says that decision isn't simple. Munnell is the director of the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College.
Dr. ALICIA MUNNELL (Director, Center for Retirement Research, Boston College): It's very hard to weigh whether suspending the match is better or worse than laying people off. It affects everyone a little, instead of a few people dramatically.
GOLD: This isn't the first time companies have suspended the 401(k) match. In 2001, more than a dozen companies did the same thing. Most have put the benefit back in place since then. This time around, two percent of U.S. companies have reduced their 401(k) benefits so far, and another four percent are considering it in the next year. That's according to a recent survey. But Munnell says the suspensions could soon become more popular.
Dr. MUNNELL: It makes it more socially acceptable once the first one does it, that there's been a precedent established. I think we will see a lot of companies following GM and the other companies that have taken this step.
GOLD: Ultimately, she says, it's the length and severity of the recession that will determine how many companies end up cutting retirement benefits. Jenny Gold, NPR News.