The memo to workers made the changes sound almost upbeat: "Your Work, Your Rewards, Your Verizon," it read. But to some workers at Verizon...
NEW YORK — The memo to workers made the changes sound almost upbeat: “Your Work, Your Rewards, Your Verizon,” it read.
But to some workers at Verizon Communications, the company’s announcement this past week that it will freeze the pensions of 50,500 managers is nothing but an employer breaking a decades-old promise to its own people.
“We’re all good people here,” said Maureen Aeckerle, a 25-year Verizon veteran in Maryland, her voice breaking. “And to be treated this way is just unacceptable.”
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Aeckerle and her co-workers are hardly alone. More large companies are moving to freeze or terminate their pension plans.
While most companies that have done so up to now have been struggling financially, a growing number resemble Verizon — healthy, profitable companies looking for another way to cut costs and reduce risks.
Last year, 71 of the nation’s 1,000 largest companies froze or terminated pension plans, up sharply from 45 in 2003, according to consulting firm Watson Wyatt Worldwide.
Nearly all were freezes, in which workers do not earn any new pension benefits but retain the right to eventually retire with benefits already earned.
The pension freeze has left many Verizon workers “mad, angry, outraged,” said Janice Winston, a former Verizon engineer who was an outspoken critic of the company’s effort a decade ago to cut pension benefits.
“The people I’ve talked to are afraid. They don’t know what’s going to happen next.”
A Verizon spokesman, Bob Varettoni, said the cuts will reduce benefits so they are on par with those offered by competitors. Asked to respond to workers’ who say Verizon has broken its word, he said the company could not afford to maintain the status quo.
“Frankly, yes, there has been some of that feedback” from workers angered by the cuts, Varettoni said. “Our response is that we are keeping the promise to our employees for what they have already earned, but we are changing the future relationship … “
Verizon’s freeze comes as nearly all companies offering traditional pensions — not just those in financial difficulty — are rethinking the costs, risks and reasoning behind their retirement plans, said Alan Glickstein, a pension consultant with Watson Wyatt.
The process is being driven by concerns about measures before Congress that would tighten restrictions on companies that don’t fully fund their pension plans and increase premiums companies must pay to the federal government to insure their plans, he said.
At the same time, accounting regulators are looking at rule changes that would force companies to report their pension liabilities on their balance sheets.
Until recently, “there was a very strong correlation between the freezes and terminations we looked at and companies under severe financial pressure,” Glickstein said.
“I think it’s a good possibility we will be seeing more examination of plans and I suspect coming out of that will be some of those (healthy companies) saying we want to go in a new direction.”
In the past year or so, employers including Sears, NCR and Circuit City have frozen pension plans for all or some of their employees.
But pension advocates say such changes amount to a compensation cut for experienced workers who devoted years to companies knowing that a pension was part of the deal.
“What’s changed over the years is that companies and workers have a very different understanding of what a pension promise is. From a company point of view it’s, ‘Just because we said we’re going to give this to you, doesn’t mean we can’t change our minds,’ ” said Karen Friedman, policy director for the Pension Rights Center, an advocacy group.