To put the plight of the Detroit city employees into an international and comparative context when it comes to considering how their pension and wage claims should be treated in bankruptcy, it is instructive to consider how similar employee pension and wage claims would be treated in corporate insolvencies in other countries. It is necessary to focus on corporate insolvencies in other countries as the relevant comparison because most other countries do not have government systems in which municipalities have the same financial independence to borrow money and take on debt as municipalities do in the United States as part of the municipal bond market. Additionally, exploring the corporate bankruptcy systems in other countries provides a beneficial way to consider how to approach municipal bankruptcy situations in the United States, especially since corporate and municipal bankruptcies in the United States have a number of features in common when it comes to employee creditor claims.
This article therefore undertakes a comparative analysis of the treatment of pension and wage claims in insolvency proceedings and under guarantee schemes in the thirty-four member countries of the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) to understand whether the United States’ approach to employee claims in bankruptcy (in both the corporate and municipal context) is consistent with international norms. After completing the comparative analysis (which is comprehensively set out in the Country-by-Country Appendix at the end of this paper), this article then highlights common approaches to these issues, as well as important distinctions, setting up a number of tables to summarize the results.
All in all, most OECD countries have adopted hybrid systems which combine both some form of priority for both pension and wage claims, as well as some form of guarantee fund to complement the insolvency system. It is especially important to have these guarantee funds in place because insolvency processes can last for years, while the guarantee schemes are more likely to pay employees their claims within weeks or months. Unfortunately, the United States provides only limited priorities in most bankruptcy proceedings (and no such wage or pension priorities in Chapter 9 municipal proceedings), a guarantee system under the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (PBGC) that is limited to pension plans, and then only to private-sector defined benefit pension plans. Neither private-sector defined contribution plans nor public sector pension plans come under a guarantee scheme in the United States.
One possible approach to employee claims in both municipal and corporate bankruptcies would be to pass pension and bankruptcy reform laws similar to what Canada enacted in 2008 as part of its Wage Earner Protection Program Act (WEPPA). Unlike the American system, WEPPA provides limited absolute priorities for pension contributions and a broad array of wage claims in insolvency, as well as a robust wage guarantee scheme. As to the policy reasons supporting this approach, it appears that greater emphasis is placed on the need to protect the weakness of employees creditors in the insolvency process as opposed to focusing on the need to ensure the existence of cheap, accessible credit for companies and governments.
This article concludes that given the relative vulnerability of employees and the sophistication of most lenders, the United States should balance these interests to provide increased protection for employment claims during municipal and corporate insolvency proceedings through giving heightened priority treatment to employees pension and wage claims in bankruptcy in tandem with a federally-operated guarantee scheme for both pension and wages claims.