Bethlehem retirees may have to return some funds
From News and Wire Services

Thousands of Bethlehem Steel retirees have been warned they may see their already-dwindling pension benefits shrink even more.

The retirees have long known their pensions would shrink as the company that once was based in Bethlehem, Pa., withered into bankruptcy. Now, they may be forced into an installment payback plan with Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp., or PBGC, which has been overseeing Bethlehem Steel's pension plan since April.

About 7,000 retirees may be affected nationwide, about 400 of them in Western New York, according to the PBGC.

The PBGC plans to hold meetings with Buffalo-area retirees next week to discuss the pension adjustments and for general questions about the pension takeover.

The meetings are scheduled Nov. 3-6 in the Holiday Inn Grand Island at 100 Whitehaven Road. Retirees may call the agency at 1-800-453-9584 to find the time for their meeting.

Those who will need to pay the money back include workers whose pension checks were increasing as part of a collective bargaining agreement, those who exceed the PBGC's caps on pension checks and those who have been receiving an extra $400 a month to supplement their income until they turn 62 and become eligible for Social Security benefits.

They will begin receiving adjusted checks for their "estimated benefits" in December. Once the estimates are finalized, a process that could take years, the retirees will begin to see their checks reduced by up to 10 percent a month until the money they owe PBGC is paid off, representatives of the agency said.

"Some people could have six, seven months of extra benefits that they have to pay back," said Jeffrey Speicher, a spokesman for the PBGC, who noted that the corporation does not charge interest on the money it recoups.

Retiree Melvin Schmeiser, 56, said his monthly checks are being cut nearly in half.

Schmeiser took early retirement from Bethlehem Steel in 2000 with the promise of a $2,850 monthly pension check. Now, Schmeiser estimates he has to pay back about $15,000.

"It's certainly going to be a financial burden," said Schmeiser, who lives in Baltimore.

Speicher, the PBGC spokesman, said the payment plan is designed to make the process as painless as possible for retirees.

"The recoupment policy is designed to stretch out the repayment without interest and to have it come out of future checks in very small amounts," Speicher said.

The affected retirees will be meeting with PBGC representatives this week in Baltimore to learn more about their reduced benefits.

A spokeswoman for Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, a Baltimore County Democrat, stressed the importance of collecting information from retirees so they can be given the pensions they deserve.

"Many of these retirees depend on the pensions for their livelihood," said spokeswoman Heather Moeder Molino. "It's important to go through this process so the pensions are given out in a fair manner."