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St. Clare's retirees share anger, anxiety at pension crisis

St. Clare's retirees share anger, anxiety at pension crisis

Dozen of workers at defunct Schenectady hospital describe impact of seeing income reduced or eliminated
St. Clare's retirees share anger, anxiety at pension crisis
From left: Bonnie Benson, Mary Hartshorne, Frederick Ziemann, Frederick Ziemann and Barbra Kennedy
Photographer: Erica Miller and Marc Schultz/Gazette Photographers

SCHENECTADY — For more than 1,100 former employees of St. Clare’s Hospital, the letter that arrived in the mail in mid-October was a punch in the gut – and the heart.

Those drawing pensions learned their checks would get smaller or stop altogether in early 2019. For those not yet at retirement age, there never would be a pension check.

Pension fund administrators expected most of the pensioners would receive letters by this weekend, notifying them what their final monthly checks would be.

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Many who worked there look back on St. Clare’s — the smaller and younger of Schenectady’s two general-care hospitals — as a close-knit workplace with an extended family of co-workers. To learn so late in life that an important chunk of their retirement income would suddenly evaporate was both a financial and an emotional shock.

Here are the voices of a dozen former St. Clare’s employees, describing how the pension's plan's demise affects them.

JERRY AND KATHY ADACH

“We met there, had our babies there, so we were in it for the long haul,” recalled Jerry Adach, of Rotterdam. He and his wife, Kathy, worked a combined 59 years at the hospital off McClellan Street.

Barring some kind of intervention – none is expected – neither will collect a dime in retirement benefits, as both are younger than the cutoff age set by St. Clare’s Corp. as it tries to preserve the severely underfunded pension plan.

“The St. Clare’s pension was a major piece of the puzzle,” Adach said of the couple’s retirement plan. “It wasn’t enough, but with anything we could save and Social Security, it would be enough.”

The Adachs were hired by Ellis Hospital in 2008, when Ellis took over St. Clare’s as part of a state-ordered consolidation, and they are very grateful for the employment. Jerry still works for Ellis as an information technology manager, though Kathy now is an assistant to an administrator at St. Peter’s Health Partners.

The couple plans to speak to a financial adviser, as they may need to delay their retirements to compensate for the loss of their pensions. They’ve already cut back on discretionary spending: “the general things you'd expected to do in your 50s,” after children are grown.

“We’re kind of back where we were when we were starting out,” Adach said.

“We have no recourse — we have no one to talk to. No lawyer is going to take this case. I wish that we could at least have an audience.”

MARC SCHULTZ/GAZETTE PHOTOGRAPHER
Retired radiologist Mary Hartshorne at home on Mariaville Lake.

MARY HARTSHORNE

At 68, Mary Hartshorne is old enough that she’ll continue receiving her pension at a reduced rate, or she will be able to take a lump-sum buyout. She still didn’t know, as of last week, how much either of those options would contribute to her income.

“We won’t know until we get the letter,” Hartshorne said. “It’s very unnerving because it paid my mortgage.”

That’s her main worry: Not being able to afford her home on Mariaville Lake. 

“It means the world to me, and I really don’t want to sell it,” Hartshorne said. “I’m going to do everything I can to hang onto it.”

Hartshorne was a sonographer at St. Clare’s and became a reiki practitioner in her retirement. She enjoys helping people through their healing process and likes being free of the rush-rush atmosphere of modern conventional medicine. But in solo reiki practice, she is not making enough to replace her pension.

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And she’s not happy about it, specifically calling out Joseph Pofit, the administrator of the pension fund, for his explanation of the fund’s shortfall.

“Does he really think we’re all that stupid?” Hartshorne said. “It almost sounds like a movie. We’re talking about 1,100 of us. None of this makes sense. But we can’t get proof.

“Believe me when I say, there’s money to be paid; there’s money somewhere. No one ever could figure out who spent that money.

“Somebody dropped the fiduciary ball.”

ERICA MILLER/GAZETTE PHOTOGRAPHER  
Frederick Ziemann poses for a photograph outside at Empire State College, in Saratoga Springs, on Monday, November 5, 2018. Ziemann worked for St. Clare’s Hospital from 1976-2008 and will not be receiving his full pension.

FRED ZIEMANN

Fred Ziemann was one of the many, many people who make a hospital function while rarely encountering a patient. 

First at St. Clare’s starting in 1976, and then at Ellis, the microbiologist worked in the lab, analyzing samples to see what germs were making people sick and then finding drugs that would kill those germs.

He retired in the summer of 2017. He and his wife sold the Altamont house where they raised five children and downsized to a Saratoga Springs apartment with help from a pension that already was less than maximum.

“That pension, as it was, I had it reduced initially so my wife would get it in case I died,” said Ziemann, who is 69.

Now, the couple are wondering if they can still afford to live in the Spa City.

“We’re on pins and needles because we don’t know what’s going to happen,” Ziemann said.

Ziemann has more anger in his voice than some of his fellow retirees.

“It boggles the mind, the things they were doing,” Ziemann said. “But St. Clare’s creditors [in 2008] were all paid in full. We come below the people that delivered the toilet paper.

“If this happened to a policeman or a fireman, there’d be an uproar. We served that community just as much. There’s probably not a family in Schenectady that I haven’t helped.”

Like others, Ziemann sees no savior on the horizon.

“I’ve written to all the local politicians and all but one were sympathetic," Ziemann said. "But they said there’s nothing they can do. The one said, 'Suck it up.'”

MARC SCHULTZ/GAZETTE PHOTOGRAPHER
Retired nurse Barbara Kennedy at home in Clifton Park.BARBARA KENNEDY

Barbara Kennedy, a nurse for 38 years at St. Clare’s and four at Ellis, described something akin to survivor’s guilt, as the situation unfolds.

“I won’t be hurt as bad as other people,” Kennedy said. “My husband and I worked all our lives, and we’re savers. My heart is with those who aren’t going to get anything. … I actually am old enough that I will be in the safe group.”

Kennedy said if her choice is between the reduced monthly payment and the one-time lump sum payment, she’ll probably take the buyout.

“Right now, I don't trust anything that they do," Kennedy said.

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Kennedy added: “The other party we blame is the Roman Catholic Diocese of Albany, because we were under their rule. We feel they should help out.”

This is a recurring theme among many of the retirees: The diocese bears responsibility for the crisis. However, representatives maintain the diocese never was responsible for St. Clare’s or its finances and is not now responsible for the hospital’s pension obligations. 

JOHN OWENS

John Owens finds himself in a somewhat ironic position of being hurt by the financial legacy of an employer whose finances he managed for 18 years, as chief financial officer.

As a church-based nonprofit serving a poor population, St. Clare's was never flush with cash, Owens said. But it ran deep in the red in its final years, which is part of why it was targeted for state-ordered shutdown, he added.

It’s also why the hospital’s pension fund was so badly off balance by the time it closed in 2008.

“It had been a struggle right from the beginning,” recalled Owens, who retired in 2004 and began collecting his pension in 2006.

“So, I’m in the group that’s getting cut,” rather than having their pensions eliminated, Owens said.

“For me, it’s a lot; it’s more than half of my retirement income,” said Owens, who will be spending down his savings to supplement Social Security and the pension check. “I’m wondering if I can maintain my home.”

Owens thinks the state should step in and clean up the mess that resulted after it ordered St. Clare’s to close. He said if the state could agree in 2017 to pay a single Russian boxer $22 million for brain injuries suffered in a 2013 state-supervised bout in Manhattan, it should be able to pay to help make 1,100 New Yorkers whole on their pensions.

MARC SCHULTZ/GAZETTE PHOTOGRAPHER
Pam Fiano at home in Rotterdam. PAM FIANO

Pam Fiano, of Rotterdam, among those former St. Clare’s employees who are slated to receive nothing.

“I’m 58, and they had it set up so you couldn’t even collect for early pension at 55,”  Fiano said. “It’s just sad. I’ve kind of written it off; I know I’ll never get anything for the time I worked there.”

Fiano is a nurse with Visiting Nurse Service. Previously, she worked 10 years for Ellis and 13 for St. Clare’s.

“Between Ellis and where I’m working now, I’ll be OK. My husband has a good pension,” Fiano said. “But you have husbands and wives who worked for St. Clare’s that depend on that pension. How can you live on [just] Social Security these days?”

Fiano, like many St. Clare’s veterans, recalls a sense of community in the hospital that didn’t exist in other workplaces. 

“You have to understand St. Clare’s,”  Fiano said. “Back then, it wasn’t a big gigantic [place]. It was a smaller hospital ... We were tight. It didn’t matter what shift you worked there, everybody knew everybody. It was family.”

This camaraderie lives on in the hearts of many ex-employees. But thus far, they have found no more success through collective action than working singly, as the pension cuts bear down on them.

KELVIN “KELLY” ISOLDA

In a quarter-century as an electrical technician and electrician at St. Clare’s, Kelly Isolda became fully aware of that sense of community. But it was seldom so strong as when his Elder Street home caught fire and two of his children died.

“Everybody was there for me,” Isolda said. “Dietary even sent me food. It was amazing. It was almost too much.

“That was the type of place it was: It was like a family. We weren’t a bunch of nameless underlings. We stuck together.”

 Isolda added: “Hopefully we’re sticking together now.”

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Isolda is planning to drop his landline telephone and cable TV service to make ends meet when his pension gets cut.

“I did leave before the merger, but I was in a position where I had to rely on my pension, so I took it early,” Isolda said. “It was a reduced rate, but it’s going to go down more.”

The 72-year-old is also looking to move from his northside Schenectady apartment to subsidized housing.

“I understand I’m going to downsize to senior housing eventually, but I wasn’t expecting to do it so soon,” Isolda said.

ERICA MILLER/GAZETTE PHOTOGRAPHER  
Portrait of Bonnie Benson, former Patient Representative at St. Clare’s in Schenectady, at her home in Charlton, on Thursday, November 8, 2018.

BONNIE BENSON

“We’ve cut back what we’re planning on doing,” said Bonnie Benson, of Charlton, who worked in St. Clare’s business office for 37 years. “My pension’s in jeopardy as far as the amount, and I don’t know what it will be. The uncertainty is definitely causing me a lot of anxiety, as far as what’s going to happen – how much of it are they going to pull away.”

She and her husband also rely on his pension check, which is smaller than hers, and their Social Security checks. Together, it’s not a large sum, so they’re being careful.

“We used to go out to eat a little more,” Benson said. “We’re watching the trips we’re taking, so hopefully the cash will last a little longer.”

Like many in the St. Clare’s community, she had a definite sense that the pension fund was in trouble before the cuts were imposed. But Benson said she did not have enough details to understand why, or what it would mean to her.

“It’s all kind of news to us, in a way. We knew it was coming, but we thought we’d have a little longer to get ready,” Benson said.

“We’ll do what we can the best we can, and hopefully we’ll get through it.”

PETE JONES

Pete Jones, of Schenectady, worked for 35 years at St. Clare’s, the last 25 in human resources as a recruiter. He’s now a career navigator at Schenectady Community Action Program, helping people find jobs.

“Basically, it’s the opposite of what I did before,” Jones said.

His St. Clare’s pension will be cut by about half.

“Basically, now I’m 67, so I’ve been getting some of it, but it’s going to take away half of my income. I don't know yet how it’s going to affect me because I’ve been told three different scenarios. Some people are going to get nothing — and there’s a lot of those.

“Right now I’m good because I have this other job.”

The family finances are up in the air because of the pension cut.

Jones’ wife is a veteran nurse now working at Ellis, but for much of her career, she worked on a per-diem basis, so she could raise their five children. As such, she’s accrued very little in pension benefits.

“What I’ve done mostly is increase my 403(b),” Jones said. “I’ve put as much as possible in it.”

Also, the couple has a stable housing situation in their Bellevue home.

“Thankfully, it’s paid for,” Jones said.

PETER R. BARBER/GAZETTE PHOTOGRAPHER Patty Pangburn in the living room of her Rotterdam home Thursday, November 8, 2018.PATTY PANGBURN

“I think we’re all on the same page with our frustrations,” said Patty Pangburn, of Rotterdam, referring to her fellow St. Clare’s retirees.

And those frustrations generally boil down to two sticking points, Pangburn said: the short notice provided about the pension cuts and the fact that some retirees still will get pension payments, albeit smaller, while others will get nothing.

The 64-year-old former department secretary at St. Clare’s falls into the latter category.

“I’ve only been collecting for two and a half years, so February will be my last payment,” Pangburn  said.

She recently joined an informal committee of retirees looking for a solution (or even a response) to the pension cuts. It hasn’t gotten very far in its examination of federal pension regulations but was set to meet again last Thursday in Albany with the law school professor who has volunteered his help to the group. 

“We want to really find out: Can they do whatever they want?” Pangburn said. “I know we don’t have that ERISA protection,” she added, referring to the landmark 1974 federal law that regulated pension plans. That law does not cover pension plans offered by church-affiliated organizations that choose not to be regulated.

MARC SCHULTZ/GAZETTE PHOTOGRAPHER
Frank DiBiase a St. Clare's Hospital retired emplyee at his home in Halfmoon.

FRANK DIBIASE

Because of his date of birth, Clifton Park resident Frank DiBiase will lose the pension he received for his 33 years of service at St. Clare’s.

He began collecting it just eight months ago, when he turned 62.

“Then I get a letter last month saying it’s over. Mine is gone,” he said.

DiBiase was a housekeeper, orderly, groundskeeper and, finally, a driver at the hospital. He said the whole pension mess is confusing.

“There’s so much double talk now that I don’t understand it,” DiBiase said. “I’d like to know what happened to all that money. I worked all those years, and this it what it comes to.”

The idea that retirees are being split into haves and have-nots also is a problem for DiBiase.

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“Some do, some don’t. What the heck’s that? We all did the same thing. We all worked.”

DiBiase will rely on Social Security and a small income from his longtime hobby/part-time gig playing guitar with Grand Central Station, a local band. His wife hasn’t retired yet, so his household finances won’t suffer too greatly in the short term.

He might also seek a new job, if he can find something his arthritic back can handle.

“It’s harder for me to walk, but there’s certain jobs I could do.”

JIM AND CEIL MACK

Jim and Ceil Mack are another St. Clare's couple, with a combined 57 years at the hospital. 

Both will suffer a pension cut, but they have a full-time and three or four part-time jobs between them, so they’re not worried for themselves, said Ceil, who was the longtime public voice of the hospital as its director of corporate communications.

“We’re OK; we’re so fortunate,” she said. “We are not in dire straits by any stretch of the imagination, but we are 70 — Jim is 70, and I’m 69.”

Jim was the head of the St. Clare’s credit union and helped merge it with Sunmark Federal Credit Union when the hospital shut down. After five years with Sunmark, he “retired” to a trio of part-time jobs.

Ceil is now director of marketing at Ingersoll Place Assisted Living and does some freelance writing

In the final days of St. Clare’s, Jerry Adach and Ceil — keenly aware of the imminent loss of their community of friends and co-workers — created a tribute website highlighting the history of the hospital.

The two have teamed up again to create an online petition seeking help with the pension fund’s collapse.

“We had all those wonderful years at St. Clare’s, which is why we care so much,” Ceil Mack said. “We are grateful, and we are concerned.”

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