Happy ending to widow's pension snafu

Situation resolved after Tribune inquiry

South Bend Tribune

MISHAWAKA -- After Erma Butcher's husband of 63 years died of cancer Nov. 6, the new widow was as prepared as anyone could be under the circumstances.

When 86-year-old Ivan was diagnosed as terminal and entered hospice care for his lung and bone cancer the May before,

Erma was advised to start a record of everything she would need to do after he died.

So she did. The small woman filled a notebook with the tasks she'd have to accomplish once the 30-year Uniroyal worker had passed, including filing the right documents to switch various payments to her.

Soon after Ivan died, Erma, who just turned 83, mailed off all of the necessary paperwork to have life insurance, Social Security and pension payments started.

In about a month, the life insurance check arrived in the mail, Erma says. Social Security payments began a couple of months later.

But by mid-May and after several frustrated 800-number phone calls, Erma still had not seen any pension payments, despite being told on the phone that her application had been approved.

"I kept asking every time, 'What do you expect someone to live on?' " Erma said in an interview May 15 in the Mishawaka home she and Ivan lived in since the 1950s, in which they raised three children. "Social Security pays the bills, but you've got to have food."

Her daughter, Vicki Mikulak, recalls her mother telling her about every frustrating phone call that would sometimes leave her in tears. Then, when the first of the month would roll around, no check would be in the mailbox.

"It keeps just dragging on and dragging on," she says.

In fact, Erma says, "When I told them, 'I might report you,' they said, 'Go ahead, it won't do any good.' "

So Vicki decided to involve the media.

When I called a spokesman for the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp., Marc Hopkins, later the same afternoon I spoke with Erma, he promised he would look into Erma's case and report back to me within a few days.

A short time later, Erma received a phone call from a woman apologizing for the delay. The next day, Hopkins called her, too.

On May 21, a FedEx package arrived from PBGC with a letter again apologizing for the delay in Erma's case and telling her a check would be issued for the back amount that week and her regular payments begun as of June 1. Erma reports that her back check payment did arrive May 23.

Because June 1 was on Sunday, Erma was expecting her monthly payment to come by today.

Hopkins says he can't comment specifically on the Butcher case.

"We shoot for perfection, but sometimes we fall short," he said last week. "I don't have a good answer for what the snafu was, but we pay over 800,000 people each month on time. We strive to make sure no one ever misses a payment."

Hopkins says despite Erma's experience, the process normally takes 45 to 60 days from initial contact.

PBGC protects private-sector pension plans, including paying benefits to more than 1.5 million people in failed pension plans, such as Uniroyal. It's not a government agency, but rather financed by insurance premiums, investment income and assets and recoveries from failed plans.

Ivan and Erma Butcher had met on a blind date in their hometown area of southern Illinois when he was fresh out of the Navy after World War II. A farm boy, Ivan saw all the open Uniroyal jobs in Mishawaka at the time as offering a better life, so the two of them moved here.

He spent his three decades at Uniroyal in various positions, but mainly on a line that made fuel cells for missiles.

But Erma, thinking her home is now too much for just herself, is packing up and planning to move back to southern Illinois to be with family soon.

She's angry that starting the pension payments turned into such a battle.

"It's just a shame," she says, her slight Southern drawl still evident despite so many years living in northern Indiana. "If they're doing it to me, you know they're doing it to other people."


Erma Butcher discusses her struggles to receive Uniroyal pension payments she is due after her husband's death in November. "If they're doing it to me," she says, "you know they're doing it to other people."(SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)