GE offers retirees an extra check

General Electric Co. will offer a lump-sum payment worth $140 million in December to 130,000 pension

General Electric Co. will offer a lump-sum payment worth $140 million in December to 130,000 pensioners, including 13,000 living in the Capital Region.

To many pensioners who retired decades ago, however, the so-called “13th check” is too little, too late. The check is equivalent to one month’s pension payment.

“We have been talking all over the country, we pensioners, and we feel the 13th check is structured wrong. The older retirees are in need of some type of increase. Instead, they are getting less and less,” said Bob Bombard, president of the Retiree Council of IUE-CWA Local 301. Local 301 represents more than 1,000 hourly GE workers in Schenectady.

Bombard said some pensioners retired for 30 or more years are collecting less than $1,000 per month after decades of service to the multibillion-dollar conglomerate. Spouses of deceased retirees are collecting even less, some as little as $200 per month, he said.

Helen Quirini, who headed the Local 301 Retiree Council until her death in 2010, received a pension worth $800 a month following her retirement in 1980 from GE after 30 years, Bombard said. He took over the council when she died.

Susan Bishop, spokeswoman for GE, said the company understands the concerns of pensioners, but “we have an obligation to more than 500,000 retirees and people who are currently employed with GE or who no longer work at the company but are vested.”

Bishop said the company is distributing the December voluntary payment for several reasons. “Every couple of years, we look at the pension fund and make adjustments due to the cost of living and to recognize contributions of past retirees,” she said.

This is the company’s ninth, 13th check since 1980. “We typically do it about every four years and we typically announce it after our union negotiations,” she said.

The payment is voluntary in that the company is not contractually required to provide it.

The company in June reached new four-year agreements with the International Union of Electronic Workers-Communications Workers of America (IUE-CWA), which represents 1,205 workers at GE Energy in Schenectady and the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE), which represents 170 at GE Energy in Fort Edward. A total of 15,000 hourly employees are covered by these agreements.

Bombard called the 13th check a one-time shot that does not increase the pension base for retirees. “There has not been an increase over the past few years,” he said.

Kevin Mahar, president of the Retiree Council of IUE-CWA Local 201 in Lynn, Mass., said the voluntary payment is “patently unfair. For someone with 361⁄2 years of service, his 13th check is worth $848 while others [such as middle management] get $5,000, $6,000, maybe $10,000.”

Mahar said the older, longest-retired pensioners need “just as much for taxes, food, heat and other necessities of life. GE has dramatically increased pensions in the last 10 years, but the company has left out the older retirees.”

Bombard said older GE retirees have a difficult time keeping up. “A lot of these pensioners are at poverty level and taxpayers end up picking up the tab on some of this stuff, such as Medicare,” he said.

The council presidents also lambasted GE for not contributing to the pension fund since 1987. This means employees make all contributions to the plan through their paychecks. GE does plan to contribute about $1.4 billion to the pension plan in 2012, according to GE’s 2010 annual report.

Bishop said the Employee Pension Trust is valued at between $40 billion and $50 billion.

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