Retirees Fret GM's Bankruptcy

A job at General Motors used to mean not having to worry about retirement. The company had promised a good pension and health care for life. Retirees are losing some of their benefits as the company goes through bankruptcy. Many worry that they could lose even more if the big automaker's fortunes don't turn around quickly.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And that's the subject of GM's many thousands of retirees. They're starting to lose some of the retirement benefits they once expected to have for life.

Let's bring in NPR's David Schaper.

DAVID SCHAPER: I'm standing the Union Hall for UAW Local 735 in Canton, Michigan, just outside of Detroit. And though it's mostly empty now, there's been a steady stream of worried workers and retirees coming in here to try to find out how the GM bankruptcy filing affects them.

What's going on? How are�

Mr. KIRK LANE (Retired GM Autoworker): Puzzled looks, upset looks, sad looks. I've seen a lot of tears.

SCHAPER: Kirk Lane spent 33 years working in GM's Willow Run Powertrain plant before retiring in April.

Mr. LANE: From day one, we've been promised that, you know, you dedicate your time and service and life to us as far as General Motors goes - you know, you commit to us, and we'll commit to, you know, taking care of you and - when your time comes. And it's slowly getting pinched off here and pinched off here and pinched off here. And they're taking more and more away from us. And it's scary as hell.

SCHAPER: What scares Lane is what he sees as an uncertain future for GM's health care coverage for retirees. You see, Lane didn't want to retire, but he had to this spring because of heart problems.

Mr. LANE: If they take my health care away, I probably won't be around very long because I won't be able to afford my medicines. I won't be able to afford them. I take 10 pills a day. So - and they're expensive.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SCHAPER: Tens of thousands of non-union salaried GM retirees over the age of 65 already lost their health care coverage in January to save the company money. As part of the deal between GM and the UAW, union retirees will lose their dental and vision care benefits. Health coverage will remain intact, but there's a catch: GM stock will cover half of the $20 billion health care trust fund for retirees. That means the long-term health benefits for retirees are directly tied to the fortunes of the new GM when it emerges from bankruptcy.

Like a lot of loyal workers and retirees, Kirk Lane says he loved his job and the company, but does he really believe GM will bounce back?

Mr. LANE: In my heart, I believe it will. I believe it will come back. I believe that this company is not dead.

SCHAPER: Another concern for GM retirees is their pension. Company and union officials say the pension fund is solvent, and pension checks will continue to go out on time during the bankruptcy period and beyond.

But that's not all that reassuring to some retirees.

Mr. BRUCE BAYHAY(ph): I don't put anything past them, because I've been around for 58 years and I've seen a lot of stuff happen that shouldn't have happened.

SCHAPER: Sitting on the deck overlooking his two-acre backyard, Bruce Bayhay says he worries that the federal government could take over the GM pension program and then could reduce the pay. Bayhay says he tried to supplement his pension by investing in GM stock, which was nearly worthless when the company took it back.

So now instead of enjoying retirement, Bayhay says he's looking for at least a part-time job to help rebuild the nest egg he thought he'd earned in the GM factory.

Mr. BAYHAY: If you'd worked for something for 30 years and then somebody just comes in and, just because they decide to, take it away from you, what would your attitude be? Real simple: It ain't right.

SCHAPER: To be clear, Bayhay and other retirees recognize that they're better off than those still working in GM plants and who are far from retiring. Those workers face more layoffs and may not be with the company long enough for any retirement benefits.

David Schaper, NPR News, Detroit.

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