Could Your Failing Company Take You Down Too?

More than 60,000 companies went bankrupt last year alone, and when they go under they could take more than workers' wages with them.

The United States Department of Labor says it has seen an uptick in companies mismanaging their employees' health and retirement funds.

As companies start to fail, some stop making matching contributions to their employee's health and retirement plans, others fail to forward the employee's own contribution and a few simply steal the money.

VIDEO: Your health and retirement funds may be at risk.Play
Workers Lose More Than Wages When Companies Fail

Two years ago in Crystal Lake, Ill., workers at Phezer Enterprises, a steel production company, did not anticipate coming into work one day and finding the company closed.

"I kind of panicked. What are you going to do now, you know?" said one former employee, Steven Kreft.

CLICK HERE for warning signs to help you find out if your health or retirement plan is in jeopardy.

Bounced paychecks were the first sign that the company was in trouble. Welder Jim Greinke lost his home to foreclosure when he wasn't paid.

But as bad as that sounds, it gets worse. Phezer workers paid for their own health insurance via withholding from their paychecks. For months, Phezer failed to forward over $10,000 of the money that money to the insurance company, according to investigators.

The workers said it was theft and that neither Phezer nor the insurance company let them know their health coverage had lapsed.

Instead, they found out by accident when Doug Hulsey's daughter went to the doctor and was told her insurance card was no good.

"At first I thought she had the wrong insurance card because they were still taking it out of our paychecks and everything," Hulsey said.

Cobra coverage does not apply when a company goes out of business, so now the workers were unemployed and uninsured. When Phezer employees came back to the company to get their belongings and pay as well as answers about their insurance, all the gates to the building were locked and the company was gone.

A notice from the company owner Joseph Michael Phelan instructed ex-workers to send all health claims to a box at the local post office. But when ABC News checked it out, the box number did not exist.

Company 'Took Everything'

"They took everything from me when the company closed down," former employee John LaMayer said.

At the time, LaMayer's wife was ill and his young daughter and daughter-in-law both were pregnant.

"When this guy took all my money away and took all my insurance away ... I felt bad about it because I couldn't take care of my family the way I wanted to," LaMayer said.

The LaMayer family racked up $100,000 worth of medical bills and had to declare bankruptcy, he said.

The Department of Labor's Employee Benefit Security Administration, which investigates plundered health and retirement funds, last year recovered $1.3 billion for employees. But it's not easy. Labor Secretary Hilda Solis would like more investigators and stronger laws.

"It's horrifying because you feel like: How can this happen?" Solis said.

"The way the laws were written in the past really favors more the individual who has control over those plans as opposed to the participant who is paying in," Solis said. "So there has to be more safeguards."

In fact, the government has sued Phezer company owner Phelan to try to tap into some of his assets, like the $1 million house he lived in while he ran the company.

ABC News left multiple messages for Phelan and his attorney seeking a response, but never heard back.

How to Tell if Your Health or Retirement Plan Might Be In Jeopardy

Noticing these warning signs early helps a lot, because the sooner the Employee Benefit Security Administration can get to work, the better the chances that it can freeze funds that belong to you and your co-workers before the company and its owners declare bankruptcy -- or disappear.

Be on the lookout for loans from the employee plan to the company or its offices.
You may also notice that the company is not forwarding your contribution to the plan in a timely manner, or at all.
Frequent or unexplained switches in plan managers can be a tip off.

Web Extra: Additional Warning Signs

Your account balance does not appear to be accurate.
A significant drop in account balance that cannot be explained by normal market ups and downs.
Investments listed on your statement are not what you authorized.
Your 401(k) or individual account statement is consistently late or comes at irregular intervals.
Retired employees of the company may be having difficulty getting the benefits they're entitled to.
If you know that your company is having financial difficulty, that is the biggest indicator of all and the time to start searching for all the other signs above.

If you suspect your company may be mishandling your health or retirement funds, The U.S. Department of Labor wants to hear from you as soon as possible. You can contact the U.S. Department of Labor's Employee Benefit Security Administration HERE. Or call EBSA's toll free number at (866) 444-3272 and ask to speak to a Benefit Advisor.

For more information about your rights to your health and retirement benefits when you are dislocated, here are educational materials prepared by the Department of Labor:

Job Loss Tool Kit
Dislocated Workers Brochure
Information on the ERISA law. ERISA stands for Employee Retirement Income Security Act and governs companies' obligations to safeguard these funds for their workers.
Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation If it is your pension that you are worried about, this federally chartered corporation guarantees payments of certain private pensions.

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