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St. Clare's pensioners see irony in state call for help during COVID-19 crisis

St. Clare's pensioners see irony in state call for help during COVID-19 crisis

Retirees say the state has not helped with their pension crisis
St. Clare's pensioners see irony in state call for help during COVID-19 crisis
The former St. Clare's Hospital in Schenectady is shown.
Photographer: Marc Schultz

SCHENECTADY — Gov. Cuomo’s statewide call for retired healthcare workers to return to work during the COVID-19 crisis has attracted strong support, even from a particular group of retirees who find it a bit ironic.

For the last 18 months, 1,100 ex-employees of the defunct St. Clare’s Hospital in Schenectady have been wrestling with a crisis of their own — the reduction or elimination of their pensions. Many want the state to at least help resolve their pension crisis, because it was the state that ordered St. Clare’s merged out of existence a dozen years ago, and it was the state that provided a pension bailout that proved to be far short of what actually was needed.

“It’s sad that this is the only way we can get communication from the governor,” said Mary Hartshorne, a leader of the pensioners, who for more than a year has been seeking an audience with Cuomo or his office to discuss the matter.

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Cuomo said Wednesday more than 40,000 medically trained personnel have answered the call to be available if needed, including students, retirees, and nurses and doctors not currently in direct care.

Hartshorne said it was “another slap in the face” to presume that veteran healthcare workers needed to be asked to pitch in when their community needed them most.

“We have been taking care of Schenectady County for years and years,” she said. “How could the governor think that we wouldn't be doing this?”

But many won’t, she said — not out of spite but because of their age and vulnerability to the highly contagious disease, which typically hits the elderly the hardest.

State Sen. James Tedisco, R-Glenville, who has been advocating for the pensioners since their pension fund went into crisis, repeated the call for help Wednesday. He suggested that while the pension case winds through the courts to an uncertain result, the cash-strapped state could offer relief short of making retirees whole on their pension, through means such as tax credits and fee waivers.

Frederick Ziemann would seem an ideal candidate to go back to work, even at age 70: He’s a microbiologist who for years identified pathogens in the lab at St. Clare’s and then Ellis Hospital after it absorbed St. Clare’s. “I would have been glad to go back,” he said Wednesday.

But he’s also a lifelong asthmatic who’s been hospitalized repeatedly over the years for pneumonia. So he won’t go back: If he caught COVID-19 himself, he’d be right near the top of the list of the 1 percent for whom the disease is deadly. “We’ve been social distancing since January,” he said of himself and his wife.

Ziemann remains unhappy with multiple entities over his slashed pension, but said that’s secondary to the pandemic.

“I agree that they have not done nearly enough for us,” he said.

“But in the big picture, this is much bigger than St. Clare’s. There’s priorities.”

Karen Bradley of Clifton Park recently took a job with OrthoNY after many years with St. Clare’s and then Ellis Medicine, and has pretty much been sidelined through the COVID-19 crisis in New York. First she was quarantined for two weeks after exposure to a sick person, “But thankfully my husband and I both tested negative.” Then she came back to work and nonessential surgeries were halted to conserve resources, so she has no patients.

It frustrates her.

“I’m a nurse and I can’t do anything!” Bradley said.

She’d go back to Ellis or another hospital if the crisis worsens.

“Absolutely if they needed us there I would go back. That’s what we do.”

A nurse who started at St. Clare’s 40 years ago said she too got the state’s letter calling for volunteers, even though she still works full-time.

“It took me everything I had to not reply and say ‘I'm not retired because I can’t retire, I don’t have a pension,” said the nurse, who asked that her name not be published. “Nobody could have written a novel this bad.”

That said, she is awaiting her assignment at Ellis Medicine, expects to be helping care for any surge in patients, and thinks most of her former St. Clare’s colleagues who are as healthy as she is would be just as willing to join in.

“We get it, this is a crisis, and it’s very, very scary.”

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