The Post-Standard
Syracuse, New York

Verizon says world is changing

Verizon worker from CNY says she will lose $300,000

By Peter Lyman, Washington bureau
Tuesday, February 28, 2006

      (Washington, DC)--Until a few months ago, Margo Bryerton, of Fayetteville, was planning on a comfortable retirement. Her plans changed abruptly, she said, when Verizon, the company she has worked for 17 years, announced it was changing its non-union pension plan.

      Verizon announced in December it would freeze the guaranteed pension plan covering 50,000 of its managers and expand their 401(k) retirement plans instead. In freezing the plan, the company will pay workers the benefits they have earned but will not let them build up additional benefits.

      Bryerton discussed her situation Monday at a forum on "the disintegration of private pensions" at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C.

      "I never saw it coming," Bryerton said. "There is no recovery from the lightning bolt that struck in the middle of December of 2005.

      "I will be losing over $300,000," she said. "The promises that were made have been broken."

      Bryerton, 56, was one of four members of "victims' panel," at the forum, sponsored by the Claude Pepper Center on Aging and Public Policy at Florida State University. The session was moderated by Bob Weiner, a former aide to Pepper, the late senator and congressman who championed seniors' causes while he was in Congress.

      Members of a panel of pension experts told the forum that Bryerton's experience is hardly unique. More and more private-sector employers are restructuring their pension plans or eliminating them at great cost to long-term employees who are nearing retirement, the experts said.

      As recently as 1980, 150,000 U.S. companies offered a traditional "defined benefit" pension plan, said William Arnone of New York City, a partner in Ernst & Young. The number offering such plans is down to 31,000, he said.

      "I am convinced that the major under-reported story of the year is the disintegration of private pensions, with judges allowing bankruptcy laws to protect companies while depleting billions of dollars of workers' retirement incomes," Weiner said.

      While she's not facing a retirement mired in poverty, Bryerton said she will have to scale back her expenses and likely sell her house.

      She and her fellow employees "all worked harder, secure in the knowledge that Verizon's long-term security was ours," she said. "We kept our commitment to our company" with the expectation the company would keep its commitment to employees.

      "The world is changing, and Verizon is restructuring benefits in line with the way our industry has changed," said Bob Varettoni, who speaks for Verizon. "We are keeping promises made to employees, since employees will retain pension benefits they have already earned. We are also providing employees with a transition to the new benefits structure."

      Varettoni said the changes in the pension plan affect fewer than half of Verizon's management employees. They do not affect unionized employees or current retirees, he said.

      Panelists said pension reform legislation pending in Congress would not slow the retreat of private-sector employers from their pension plans.

      "The pension system has created a middle class among retirees," said Karen Friedman of the Pension Rights Center, based in Washington. "If this system is allowed to go down, people will lose their basic retirement security."