Deborah Imondi knows pensions. The 66-year-old retiree from Johnston, Rhode Island, managed a large corporate pension fund for 25 years. But when it came time for her to claim her own pension benefits from a bank she worked for five decades ago, Imondi found herself helpless.

The bank, Rhode Island Hospital Trust, went through a series of complicated buyouts and mergers after Imondi left in 1984. The local business was eventually taken over by Bank of America Corporation, which initially told Imondi she did not have a pension with them. Many phone calls later, she said the company admitted the pension may have been turned over to Fidelity Investments — but Fidelity initially denied any record of it.

“I had just about figured this is a lost cause,” said Imondi. “If Fidelity can’t find me, nobody can.”

Imondi was one of many retirees attempting to follow the elusive paper trail to find their “lost” pensions, routinely meeting rejection and leaving behind billions of dollars in unrecovered benefits.

An estimated $156 billion in private “defined benefit” pensions — employer-funded plans popular when today’s seniors made up the workforce — are unclaimed, according to the Pension Action Center, a nonprofit based out of the University of Massachusetts Boston that helps seniors recover lost benefits.

A private-sector pension can become “lost” for a slew of reasons. Pension plans are transferred during corporate buyouts and restructuring. Employees change addresses and last names, becoming unreachable. In some cases, workers are never notified of their pension to begin with or forget they are entitled to benefits.

Part of the problem is that it is not clear what employers are obligated to do to find “missing participants,” pensioners like Imondi who are owed benefits but whose contact information is outdated or missing in plan records.

The U.S. Department of Labor, recognizing the depth of the problem, recently announced it will draft new guidelines for employers to locate people who are owed pension payouts.

Preston Rutledge, newly appointed head of the Department of Labor’s Employee Benefits Security Administration, said at a July conference that the issue “has the potential to undermine the very basis of the whole [pension] system.”

In the same address, Rutledge announced that his agency will issue clear search guidelines for employers administering pension plans. The move came after a June report by the Internal Revenue Service that found that there are “no standard practices in the industry for the frequency or method of conducting searches.” Industry groups have also publicly requested guidance from the government.

Federal regulations require employers to perform a “diligent search” before declaring a participant “missing,” but the rules do not outline specific steps for completing this search.

Employers typically use some combination of mailers sent to addresses on file, electronic search tools, and commercial locator services to find participants. Imondi says she received no such communication about her pension.

While many plans follow comprehensive search procedures, others do the bare minimum. The Employee Benefits Security Administration recently uncovered several large pension plans with serious record-keeping issues and others that were not following their own established procedures to find missing pensioners. In fiscal year 2017, the agency recovered $682.3 million in benefits by locating plans’ missing participants for them.

Mark Machiz, former regional director for the Employee Benefits Security Administration in Philadelphia, said his office was able to find a large number of participants without extraordinary effort — prompting officials to conclude companies weren’t trying very hard.

“No matter what anyone said, real efforts were not being made,” Machiz said.

While regulators move to clarify and enforce employer responsibility, legislators are working to make it easier for retirees to find their lost benefits. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a Democrat from Massachusetts, and Sen. Steve Daines, a Republican from Montana, reintroduced a bill this year that would create an online registry of all retirement plans. This central pension registry would act as a one-stop-shop for retirees trying to find plan data now scattered across several federal agencies.

But pension rights advocates have raised concerns about language added to the bill earlier this year thanks to lobbying by employer advocacy groups like the Washington, D.C.-based American Benefits Council, whose members are mainly Fortune 500 companies. The so-called “Safe Harbor” provision would bypass any guidance issued by regulatory agencies, mandating just two or three required steps employers must take to find missing participants.

Critics see the amendment as an attempt by the industry to reduce its responsibilities to locate missing participants. Machiz said the duties outlined in the amendment are much less stringent than anything the Department of Labor might issue.

“They want to know what's the least they can do” to find missing participants, he said.

Industry advocates disagree, saying employers only want to make the search process more efficient.

“There are some people that want to make this very adversarial and it’s not,” said Lynn Dudley, senior vice president with the American Benefits Council. “It’s an opportunity for government to partner with those that are regulated to do the right thing.”

But pension rights advocates claim employers have an incentive not to find missing participants like Imondi.

When employers decide they have exhausted their search options for a participant in a defined benefit plan, the money that would have been distributed often remains in the plan, boosting its financial stability.

“The more money that hasn’t been paid out, the less money the plan sponsor has to pay into the pension fund,” said Jeanne Medeiros, former director of the Pension Action Center. “They don’t have any incentive to seek out those who are entitled to those benefits.”

Dudley insists that there is no incentive for employers to neglect their search duties.

Employers are not the only ones grappling with how to manage pension plans. Some insurance companies that have taken over pension funds have neglected missing participants as well. For example, MetLife Inc. admitted in February that over the past 25 years it had made “ineffective” efforts to contact about 13,500 pensioners, whose unclaimed benefits amount to over $500 million.

In June, the office of the Massachusetts Secretary of the Commonwealth charged MetLife with fraud for failing to make these payments.

In addition, a lawsuit filed by one of those pensioners, Edward Roycroft, claims that MetLife not only failed to pay retirees but took ownership of the $500 million from the plan when participants did not come forward, converting it to money on its own bankroll.

Greg Porter, a veteran employee benefits lawyer at Bailey & Glasser in Washington, D.C. and the chief litigator for the lawsuit, explained that after MetLife sent two letters to missing participants and received no response, “as a matter of policy it would say, well those people don’t really want their money, so we’re going to take it.”

A representative for MetLife said the company was taking “aggressive steps” to locate and pay out missing participants after voluntarily conducting its internal audit earlier this year, but did not comment on the Roycroft lawsuit’s allegations.

A lost pension may only be worth a few hundred dollars a month to a retiree, but that can be a crucial financial lifeline for someone on a fixed income. A 2016 Study by the Gerontology Lab at the University of Massachusetts Boston found that 61 percent of seniors living alone in the state are struggling to meet basic living expenses. The threat of unexpected healthcare emergencies and the rising cost of housing hits seniors especially hard.

Barbara Burns, 76, of Hampton Falls, New Hampshire, says her recently recovered pension has made an unexpected difference in her life. Burns had no idea she even had a pension until speaking to a counselor at the New England Pension Assistance Project, one of six federally funded centers around the country housing the handful of lawyers that assist pensioners free of charge.

After mentioning that she had worked for 19 years at John Hancock Financial in Boston, the counselor said Burns should have been entitled to benefits and offered to take up her case.

At first, Hancock said it would not retroactively payout the benefits Burns should have begun receiving at age 70. But in June, the pension project’s lawyers were able to secure a $24,000 lump sum payment, in addition to future monthly benefits of a little under $150. Since setting up shop in 1994, the Pension Assistance Project has recovered about $60 million in pension benefits for more than 9,000 local clients.

A representative for John Hancock declined to comment on Burns’ case, saying they can’t address individual cases.

Burns said the money was instrumental. “It will help us stay in our home as long as we can before we have to downsize.”

In the end, Imondi also received help from the project. At her counselor’s insistence, Bank of America located Imondi’s benefits, and the former pension fund manager began to receive monthly checks of $291 in September of last year. Although they initially denied any knowledge of Imondi's pension, a representative of Fidelity, contacted for this story, said, "Once Fidelity was supplied with additional information, we worked with the plan sponsor to identify the benefit for the participant."

Still, Imondi worries about other retirees who don’t have her experience dealing with pension plans.

“I can just imagine how much of a horror show it is for regular people who aren’t in the business,” said Imondi, reflecting on the difficulty of her years-long search process. “It’s got to be daunting.”

Liam Knox and Lucas Smolcic-Larson are interns with the New England Center for Investigative Reporting.