New rules governing workplace pensions in British Columbia that take effect Sept. 30 will improve coverage options and security for workers covered by employer sponsored pension plans, the B.C. government announced on Tuesday.

The new Pension Benefits Standards Act gives former plan members greater access to their locked-in retirement accounts (locked-in RRSPs, or life income funds) if they run into financial hardship.

These funds may now be accessed for reasons of financial hardship in certain circumstances, which include: low expected income; inability to pay medical expenses (including those of a spouse or dependent); threat of eviction for rental arrears; threat of mortgage default on a principal residence; or inability to pay a deposit on a new rental residence. An annual limit to the amount of funds that may be withdrawn applies.

To access these locked-in funds, former plan members must apply to the financial institution that holds their funds.

In addition, the new rules aim to accommodate alternative plan designs, such as target benefit plans and plans that are jointly sponsored by employers and employees. They also aim to improve plan governance by strengthening plans’ disclosure requirements, and by requiring that all plans be covered by a governance policy.

The new standards were jointly developed by the governments of B.C. and Alberta, which have largely harmonized their pension standards to help reduce the cost and complexity of administering pensions that have members in both Alberta and B.C.