Schenectady Elfuns have been forced to reorganize following the dissolution of GE Elfuns over the summer and the announcement this fall that their medical benefits would be discontinued by year’s end.
The one-two punch was a lot of change in a little time, especially for longtime members of the 86-year-old social club and volunteer group composed of General Electric employees and retirees.
“They didn’t give us much notice,” said Carl Erikson, chairman of the local chapter. “A lot of them feel very hurt. They feel like they just divorced us, like they don’t care about us anymore. And others said, let’s just pick up and move on and see where it all gets us.”
In 1928, a group of senior managers at General Electric led by then-GE president Gerald Swope formed the Elfun Society, a fraternal society whose purpose was to encourage free and open discussion among company leaders outside of company walls through forums, debates and activities. It eventually grew to include GE employees across all levels, as well as GE retirees. In the 1980s, the Elfuns changed their charter to focus more on volunteerism.
The Schenectady chapter was a founding chapter of the Elfun Society, with the first organization chair coming from the Electric City. It had one of the largest memberships, too, but eventually dwindled over the years to about 1,500 members. It was also one of the first chapters to dive headfirst into volunteer initiatives such as repairing computers, printers and copy machines for nonprofits and schools; modifying toys so children and adults with disabilities can enjoy them; repairing Talking Book machines for the blind; and putting on science programs for elementary school kids.
In June, Elfuns got some big news: GE Elfuns is dissolving. It came with no warning, local members said.
GE Elfun officials did not respond to a request for comment, and local GE officials couldn’t provide information about the transition. Members of the board who voted in June to dissolve the centralized GE Elfun organizational structure said in a letter on the Elfun website that the move would simplify and reduce costs.
“The board is proud of Elfuns’ long history and the global leadership role our organization has played in supporting community service,” the board wrote. “But given a number of factors, including fewer corporate resources and the high number of inactive Elfun chapters, it has become clear that it is time to simplify the organizational structure. After much consideration, we feel that this decision is in the best interest of Elfun.”
Local chapters that had remained active over the years were left with a decision to make.
“A handful of us sat down and started to have long meetings to discuss what we would do,” said Erikson, who’s served as chairman for about 20 years. “Do we move forward? Do we dissolve? What do we do with the assets we’ve collected over the years?”
Ultimately, they decided to do everything they could to stay afloat.
Many chapters across the U.S. had gone inactive over the years, especially after GE launched GE Volunteers in 2005. The organization oversees all volunteer activities previously organized by Elfuns, GE businesses, affinity networks and other employee organizations.
Schenectady Elfuns moved all of their volunteer programs over to GE Volunteers at the time for insurance purposes, Erikson said. The chapter kept the social aspects of the organization alive, though.
Now that GE Elfuns has dissolved, the local Elfuns are seeking 501(c)(7) status as a tax-exempt social club. This will allow them to continue social activities, which include occasional trips and monthly luncheons that feature speakers with something interesting to share — like the great-grandson of the person who invented the coal torpedo, a SUNY professor who has studied the search for life on other planets, an engineer who researches robotics, or the man who has hiked from Mexico to Canada.
“The luncheons are very strong,” Erikson said. “People really turn out for those.”
Three months after the vote to dissolve, Elfuns received another surprise: their medical benefits would be discontinued by year’s end. The news came two days after GE announced that post-65 retiree health care benefits would no longer be available to Medicare-eligible, former salaried employees and their spouses after 2014.
Before it dissolved, GE Elfuns designated a ministerial board that would finalize all dissolution activities and oversee administration of the UnitedHealthcare-insured Elfun Medical Benefits Plan.
Last month, local Elfuns received a letter from the ministerial board stating that Elfun benefits could not be continued beyond 2014 “on a competitively cost-effective basis.”
“Your Elfun Medical Benefits Plan is designed to work with the current GE post-65 health plans,” the board wrote in a letter dated Sept. 10.
GE retiree and longtime Schenectady Elfun Joe Meuse said he was never sure what the differences were between his Elfun benefits and the average post-65 retiree benefits.
“I was offered the Elfun package seven or eight years ago,” he said. “Everyone always said to stick with the Elfun package, that it was the best.”
Erikson said it really only amounted to a couple of added benefits, including health coverage when traveling overseas and a higher lifetime cap, or the point at which an insurer will no longer pay for covered services.
Elfuns were encouraged, along with GE retirees, to shop for a new plan on OneExchange, a private health care exchange administered by New York City firm Towers Watson. GE will help pay for some expenses.
Informational meetings on the exchange were held last month in several GE communities across the country, including the Capital Region. Meuse attended one of them and was dismayed by what he saw.
“It was sad,” he said. “There were hundreds of white-haired guys with blank stares out there. A lot of these people just don’t know how to make this transition. I feel alert enough and smart enough and young enough to go through this whole process and understand it, but I think there are myriads of people out there who are shell-shocked.”
GE has described the change in benefits as consistent with trends among large companies. OneExchange is offering more than 1,000 plans from 90 different insurers, allowing for more coverage options than GE retirees currently receive, the company said.