Washington — LIKE nearly half the American workforce, Pierre Randolph has no pension or 401(k) plan to look forward to in old age.
Nonetheless, the 44-year-old maintenance worker is cultivating a retirement nest egg with the aid of his employer, outside the traditional pension system and the rules that govern it.
"These days, you don't have a retirement plan unless you make a retirement plan," said Randolph, whose employer deposits his annual raise into an individual retirement account. "If you don't save for it, you won't have it."
Plans such as Randolph's could become more widespread under various legislative proposals to address a gaping hole in the nation's safety net for financial security in retirement. The idea is for employers to deposit money from a paycheck straight into a special account, in some cases before it is taxed, and before workers have a chance to spend it.
The approach could generate savings for many of the 71 million Americans who have no workplace retirement plan. Advocates say it would cost employers little, though some employer groups are wary.
Regardless, the idea is finding support in both major political parties, which for decades have warred over retirement security issues.
"There's very strong interest in this proposal from Republicans and Democrats, from many liberal congressional offices, from many conservative congressional offices," said David C. John, a scholar at the conservative Heritage Foundation. "This is one issue where we are able to work together."
Tom Borger, who employs Randolph, began pushing his own version of the idea about 10 years ago.
Borger owns a firm that manages properties in the Washington area and wanted to help his staff of painters, maintenance people and others save for retirement. Many earn just $20,000 to $30,000 a year.
Like many smaller employers, he did not want to set up a pension plan that would be subject to all the funding rules of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act. He also knew that few of the workers were launching their own retirement accounts.
"For them to say, 'It's April 14, I'm going to write a check for $2,000 for my IRA,' it doesn't happen," Borger said. "They're living paycheck to paycheck."
To help, he offered to put the additional money each employee earned as a result of annual raises directly into an IRA that the worker would own and control. To keep it simple, he decided to make lump sum deposits once a year.
"For some of these people it's the only savings they've ever had," Borger said.
To make such benefits more available, John of the Heritage Foundation has crafted a plan with Mark Iwry from the moderate Brookings Institution, with whom John had clashed over proposals for Social Security. The fruit of their unusual collaboration is the "automatic IRA," which would require companies to offer employees the chance to make a direct deposit into an IRA. The proposal is aimed at workers whose employers don't provide them with retirement benefits.
With traditional IRAs, a worker each year can set aside as much as $4,000 in pretax earnings a year. The income tax on such contributions and on any money earned by investing the funds in the IRA is deferred until the money is withdrawn at retirement. The difference with the "automatic IRA" would be that the employee wouldn't have to come up with the cash to make a contribution.
The idea has sparked interest at the highest levels, said Iwry, a former pension official at the U.S. Treasury under President Clinton.
"We've had no fewer than five separate requests for briefings from the [Bush] administration," he said, " ... which we were more than happy to have with them."
Unlike President Bush's ill-fated plan to shift some Social Security money into private accounts, the savings idea is not immediately polarizing. Conservatives can say that it promotes personal investment and responsibility, while liberals can view the measure as a means of helping workplace have-nots. The 38-million-member AARP is supportive of the proposal.
Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.), chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, plans to introduce a version of the Savings Competitiveness Act he sponsored last year, which included a payroll deduction feature and emphasized IRAs, according to his staff.
In a more radical proposal, Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) is urging that the government provide every American with a $1,000 long-term savings fund at birth. After people enter the workforce, employers would automatically deposit 1% of the paycheck into special accounts and toss in their own 1% match.
The approach could boost the nation's paltry savings rate and yield many workers nest eggs worth half a million dollars, Sessions believes. "That is possible, realistic, so easily within our grasp if we set forth the right plans today," he told colleagues on the Senate floor.