St. Clare’s retirees plan new campaign in fight for pensions

All attempts at restoring monthly checks for 1,100 former employees have yet to succeed
Employees committee co-chairwoman Mary Hartshorne talks with media after Saturday's session.
Employees committee co-chairwoman Mary Hartshorne talks with media after Saturday's session.

Categories: Business, News, Schenectady County

ALBANY — The news wasn’t all bad at Saturday’s meeting of former St. Clare’s employees trying to have their pensions restored, but it mostly wasn’t good:

There’ll be no state contribution this year to a pension fund bailout, the Catholic Church has made no move to contribute to one, the Albany diocese and its bishop aren’t returning calls the way they once did, the last corporate entity of the defunct Schenectady hospital is trying to dissolve, and the attorneys for that corporation are trying to exclude attorneys for the pensioners from the process.

But the leaders of a committee leading the struggle for restoration of pension payments told the roughly 50 people at the meeting that they aren’t giving up, and explained the next phase of the effort, which will be a five-pronged campaign aimed squarely at the Roman Catholic Diocese of Albany, due to its close connection to St. Clare’s before, during and after its 60 years of operation.

(The diocese has maintained all along, with blunt or compassionate statements, that it did not own or operate the hospital, had no role in creating the pension mess, and has no responsibility or money to fix it.)

In June, the pensioners’ committee plans to:

  • Rent billboards in Schenectady and Albany pressing the message that the diocese should help make the pensioners whole or find a way to do so;
  • Run two full-page newspaper ads with the same message;
  • Mount a social media blitz;
  • Begin a letter-writing campaign to the diocese, archdiocese and bishop; and
  • Picket the diocese office in Albany, twice.

The cost of all this is estimated at $12,000. The pensioners are ready to launch a GoFundMe drive online to cover the cost.

The decision to crowd-fund the campaign illustrates one of the fundamental problems the pension committee has been unable to overcome: They’re not in contact with the bulk of their constituents, and the pension administrators refuse to provide a list for privacy reasons.

More than 1,100 people had their pensions eliminated or cut. If each gave $10, the committee would have $11,000, and the publicity campaign would be nearly paid off.

But only about 300 pensioners are members of the group’s Facebook page, and the committee has email addresses for only about 75 others.

Many of the former employees of St. Clare’s Hospital are out of reach because they have moved out of the area or are not adept at the digital media techniques so useful for building support for an issue in this era.

The pensioners’ anger and blame seems most squarely aimed at the diocese and bishop, rather than the state (which ordered St. Clare’s to surrender its operating license) or Ellis Medicine (which absorbed St. Clare’s).

Bob Bradley of Clifton Park, husband of a St. Clare’s pensioner, cautioned against public hostility against the church, and against Albany Bishop Edward Scharfenberger in particular.

“Through this whole campaign, we need to remain sympathetic figures,” Bradley said. “We don’t want to go out there and say mean-spirited things, do nasty things. That just would just work against us. As angry as we may be, we still have to be sympathetic.”

Much of the discussion Saturday focused on the St. Clare’s Corp., which, having cut monthly pension payments to a sustainable level, has declared its role complete, handed its remaining assets to the pension fund and a Catholic Charities fund for the pensioners, and sought to dissolve itself.

Victoria Esposito, a Legal Aid attorney who represents two pensioners, said she hopes to at least delay dissolution, as it would only make things harder for the pensioners.

David Pentkowski, an attorney representing the interests of Bradley’s wife, Karen, a former St. Clare’s nurse, found it incongruous that a corporation listing $53.5 million in liabilities would file a three-page request to dissolve.

David Pratt, an Albany Law School professor who has been advising the pensioners, remarked on the same thing that’s flummoxed the pensioners all along: Lack of information. So much of who did what, when and why as the pension fund shrank over decades is still unclear to the pensioners and their advisers.

“They weren’t doing what they should have done,” Pratt said. “We don’t have anywhere near a full accounting.”

Bradley, an accountant, tamped down this desire that so many pensioners have expressed, to know who made the decisions requiring their income to be suddenly cut after they had retired.

It would be a huge undertaking to re-create the chain of events from more than a decade ago and establish responsibility, he said.

“We’re not so concerned on looking back and trying to figure out what happened,” Bradley said. “I’m sure everybody in this room wants to know what happened, but we don’t have any authority … to do investigations. Our focus is looking forward.”

Mary Hartshorne, co-chair with Bradley of the pensioners’ committee, said she clings to a glimmer of hope despite the setbacks.

“I have been in contact with the bishop’s office. I feel a little frustrated right now, but I don’t want to lose all my positive feelings,” Hartshorne said. “But I still feel frustrated and heartbroken that we haven’t heard from him yet.”

St. Clare’s was a safety net hospital, serving many uninsured or underinsured patients. As such it was often underpaid for its services, and struggled financially in its later years. Its pension fund went into crisis because no money was paid into it in the decade after the hospital closed and very little was paid into it in the decade before it closed — even as retirees drew millions in benefits.

The hospital long ago used an exemption for religious-affiliated organizations and opted out of the federal pension insurance program as a cost-saving move, leaving its employees no safety net when the pension fund went insolvent.

It surrendered its operating license in 2008 on orders of the state Department of Health as part of a larger state effort to streamline and strengthen the health care industry in New York state. St. Clare’s and Bellevue Woman’s Hospital were absorbed by Ellis Hospital to become what is now Ellis Medicine; the old St. Clare’s campus on McClellan Street is no longer a hospital but is still used for medical purposes by Ellis.

State legislators representing the Capital Region have sought state assistance with the pension crisis but met with failure: No money was included in the budget for a bailout and both the state Comptroller’s Office and state Attorney General’s Office have declined to investigate the history of the pension fund and the fate of the first state bailout.

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