Septa's Pension Plan: A Token Effort

Posted: January 31, 1986

Frank Kwasniewski worked for more than two decades at SEPTA, but when he suffered his first heart attack in July 1984, he was ineligible to retire.

He died last March after 23 years on the job.

Today, his wife is broke, eating peanut butter sandwiches for dinner and paying her mortgage and utility bills out of a small check she gets from Social Security each month.

Fred Molitor died of lung cancer Jan. 3, 1981. He had worked 29 years driving subway cars up and down Broad Street but was ineligible to retire until he had put in 30 years.

"My husband was SEPTA. He lived and breathed SEPTA," said Eleanor Molitor, who was married to Fred for 30 years. "He was at SEPTA more than he was home."

Today, Eleanor Molitor relies on money she gets from baby-sitting and wallpapering friends' kitchens to pay her bills.

Under SEPTA rules, workers like Kwasniewski, who was 57, and Molitor, 52, are not even vested in their pension plans until they either reach age 60 with 20 years of continuous service or put in 30 years on the job.

And their widows receive nothing.

"It is unbelievable," said Ron D'Alfonso, a business agent for TWU Local 234.

Spouses of SEPTA employees are eligible for a portion of the workers' pensions only if they give irrevocable notice to SEPTA one year before retiring. But they could lose even that if the worker dies within that 12- month period.

"A lot of them don't even realize when they die, their wives get nothing," said Roger Tauss, the union's president.

The union has made improvements in pension benefits the No. 1 economic issue in its current bargaining for a new labor contract with the transit authority.

The union, whose contract with SEPTA expires March 14, is sponsoring a charity benefit tonight at the FOP hall at Broad and Spring Garden streets to

draw attention to what it calls "our dog-food pension."

Jack Markle, who heads management's negotiating team, acknowledges that the pension system is and has been a problem for SEPTA workers over the years.

"We are willing to discuss any issue they put on the table," Markle said when asked about pension improvements.

But he hints that the union might have to make a trade to win the kind of improvements it wants. Among SEPTA's contract proposals this year are clauses that would allow management to hire part-timers and to have complete control of layoffs, two issues the union says would seriously threaten its existence.

Catherine Kwasniewski still cries easily when talking about her husband of 33 years, a SEPTA cashier.

"I never, never dreamed my Frank was going to go that fast on me," she said, wringing her hands and rubbing her teary eyes in her Frankford rowhouse.

Friends and neighbors have been some comfort to Mrs. Kwasniewski, who has no children. Sometimes they extend dinner invitations to her, but her limited income forces her to tell a little white lie.

"I just have to keep saying I'm not up to it," she said. "I'm putting a big front on when I see the neighbors. They ask, 'How are you making out?' and I say, 'OK.' "

Her Social Security check just barely covers her medical bills, mortgage and utilities and payments on a small life insurance policy that will provide a few thousand dollars for her burial.

Her husband's life insurance policy paid her $8,000 but it disappeared after she paid off the medical and other bills that piled up while he was home recovering from the first heart attack.

"Just to try to make my ends meet I was eating peanut butter and jelly," she said.

Mrs. Kwasniewski, 62, hasn't held a job in 15 or 20 years and says she can't work now because of medical problems.

She was briefly on welfare after a SEPTA manager told her, "There's nothing that SEPTA can do for you. . . . The only thing I can tell you if you don't have any money is to go on welfare."

"I thought," said Mrs. Krasniewski, "that I would really get something in the pension line. I wasn't looking for a whole lot."

Mrs. Molitor appears a little better off, but only because the mortgage on her home, in another neighborhood of Frankford, was paid off before her husband died. Also, one of her sons still lives with her and helps pay the bills.

Mrs. Molitor, 55, has never worked. "Fred provided for us and that was it," she said.

"It's rough," she said. "I take every day as it is."

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