For 12 years, Joanne Parke was an auto delivery driver and yard foreman, helping shuttle hundreds of new Volkswagens, Porsches and Audis from California's Port of Oakland.
But 25 years later, when she applied for her Teamsters union pension, no one had heard of her. Over the years, the union's local had moved and merged and several office managers had either died or retired. Her pension paperwork simply was missing.
"I'd clocked in every day for 12 years, but my records didn't seem to exist," said Parke, now a 69-year-old widow living in West Sacramento. "The only record they had of me was for two years of sporadic work."
Unable to afford a pension attorney, Parke sought help from a little-known, federally funded program called the Western States Pension Assistance Project, or WSPAP.
The project helps individuals -- of any age or income -- locate lost retirement plans, confirm benefit calculations and answer questions about pensions, including 401(k) and 403(b) plans. Its services are free.
"It's a lot of detective work," said Ellen Levy, a paralegal who has worked on clients' cases since 2009.
Levy and WSPAP attorney Justin Freeborn, who heads the office, dig up Social Security records, company pension documents, work histories, tax records, even the "anniversary pin from a union," said Freeborn. "All these things can add up."
Given job losses, foreclosures and stock market upheaval, uneasiness about financial security in retirement is at an all-time high, the nonpartisan Employee Benefit Research Institute found in a March survey. Some 27 percent of Americans surveyed say they feel "not at all confident" they'll have enough retirement saving -- the highest percentage in the annual survey's 21-year history.
It's easy to lose track of pension benefits. Employees move and leave jobs. They get married or change names. Companies close, merge or enter bankruptcy.
Even when pension plans are in place, trying to decipher the terminology can be daunting.
That's where pension-help centers like WSPAP come in. "We speak the language," said Freeborn.
Funded by a $200,000 annual grant from the U.S. Administration on Aging, WSPAP is one of eight regional centers around the country. Its staff of three -- an attorney and two paralegals -- covers residents of Arizona, California, Hawaii and Nevada.
Since the Sacramento pension counseling office started taking cases in late 2007, Freeborn says it has located $8.4 million in benefits owed to retirees or their survivors. Typically, the recovered amount is less than $1,000 a month.
In some instances, WSPAP finds that pension benefits were calculated correctly, had already been cashed out or someone didn't qualify. WSPAP also get calls from retirees who've received overpayment notices from a former employer.
"It's 'Oops. We paid you $50,000 too much. Please send a check,' " said Freeborn.
In those cases, "our job is to figure out what happened and, if necessary, figure out a payment plan," said Freeborn, noting that overpayments as high as $110,000.
WSPAP looks into possible remedies: confirming if the overpayment calculation is correct; submitting an appeal to waive it, if needed; negotiating a compromise repayment plan; or finding an attorney to fight the case.
Elease Johnson, a former General Motors plant worker who gets a portion of her ex-husband's pension, received a notice that GM had overpaid her nearly $3,500. As repayment, the company wanted to cut her monthly pension benefit in half -- from roughly $1,100 to $550.
"They didn't listen to me when I was fussing at them over the phone," says the 74-year-old Sacramento woman.
She credits Freeborn with working out a compromise that temporarily drops her benefit only 25 percent, saving her nearly $300 a month. "It helped a lot. I only have $200 a month for food and gas anyway, so losing that ($300) would have been really bad."
WSPAP also gets calls from spouses in the midst of divorce, wondering what benefits they're entitled to receive. Or calls from employees who can't recall if they cashed out an old 401(k) account.
The Pension Rights Center, www.pensionrights.org, advises employees to keep all correspondence and documents related to their pension and work history.
As for Parke's case, WSPAP spent nearly eight months tracking down elusive documents, confirming she was eligible for $180 a month in benefits. Retroactively, the former Teamster is owed nearly $10,000.
The telltale document? A union bargaining contract from 1979 that named the fund holding Parke's pension.
"It's not a lot (each month), but it makes a difference," said Parke, who lives on her monthly $900 Social Security check in a rent-subsidized apartment. "It pays for what I need to survive."
Widowed for nearly three years, Parke still has to submit a raft of documentation before her monthly check and $10,000 retroactive payment arrive. When they do, she's going on a paddle-boat cruise of Lake Tahoe.