al lewis | columnist
Qwest gives its retirees a motive to die
Article Last Updated:11/11/2006 02:27:07 PM MST
If you are a US West/Qwest retiree and wish to collect full life-insurance benefits, you must die within seven weeks.
On Jan. 1, the phone company will slash retiree life-insurance benefits from as much as a full year's pay to $10,000. This economic incentive to croak by year-end was not lost on Don Mitchell, 85, of Murray, Utah, who worked 38 years as a lineman, cable splicer and district manager.
"On Wednesday, I was in the emergency room suffering from a perforated bowel," Mitchell wrote in an Oct. 26 e-mail to Qwest CEO Dick Notebaert. "I actually considered not having the recommended life-saving surgery. At least if I died before the end of the year, my family would receive the full life insurance that I had counted on for them!"
Mitchell, a disabled World War II vet, told Notebaert that cutting retirees' benefits would prove deadly.
"Your acts," he wrote, "are nothing less than an attempt at retiree genocide!"
Mitchell did not expect to die 11 days later, his wife, Donnetta, told me. His surgery resulted in complications. His funeral will be Monday in Salt Lake City.
Mimi Hull, president of the Association of US West Retirees, says she's spoken with other retirees who are weighing medical treatments versus quiet deaths.
"They're considering these medical remedies and going, 'Do I want to do this, or do I want to leave life insurance for my family?"' Hull said.
When Notebaert took over Qwest in 2002, it was on the brink of bankruptcy.
He's cleaned up the books after an accounting scandal, pared billions in debt and adopted "the Spirit of Service" mantra. His successes include three consecutive quarters of profits, after years of losses, and plans to spend up to $2 billion on a stock buyback. But he says market conditions and rising health-care costs leave him no choice but to cut retiree benefits.
"We tried to delay it as long as we could," he told Denver Post reporter Andy Vuong. "How many companies do you know of that provide retirees with life insurance equal to one year's pay?"
Not many, said John Rother, policy director for the AARP in Washington, D.C.
"Companies that were once willing to take care of you for your whole life are rapidly dwindling," Rother said.
Meanwhile, corporate executives now make hundreds of times more than their average employees. And they are rarely in danger of losing their own benefits. Notebaert earned nearly $15 million in compensation last year. He recently sold $18 million worth of stock options - his first sale since joining Qwest - but says he's giving the proceeds to charity.
On Nov. 5, Pam Barncastle of Albuquerque wrote Notebaert on behalf of her husband, Rudy, who retired in 1990 after 33 years of service. He now suffers from Alzheimer's and can't replace the insurance benefits he will lose.
"He is unable to speak, bathe or dress himself," Barncastle wrote. "He ... is not aware of the changes you have made to the contract your company negotiated with the retirees back almost 17 years ago. ... Once you have the death sentence of a disabling disease like Alzheimer's, it is financially impossible ... to obtain ... additional life insurance."
Curtis Kennedy, attorney for US West retirees, said he's preparing to sue Qwest. He claims the company cannot legally reduce benefits from those who retired in 1990 or earlier. It wasn't until that year when the company adopted language to adjust benefits, he said.
But the world in which US West retirees once worked has long passed. Qwest took over US West in 2000.
"I was excited when you took over as CEO," Mitchell wrote. "You were raised in the Bell System and I felt you knew the value of balancing the needs of the employees/retirees, shareholders and customers. ... I could relate to the 'Spirit of Service' ... as I started in the company in 1940 and spent 38 years living that spirit."
Mitchell passed this enthusiasm on to hundreds of employees who reported to him, his wife said. Work hard and be rewarded. Take care of the company and the company will take care of you. "Those ended up being lies," she said.
But at least he lost his life before he lost his life insurance. "If he died on Jan. 1," said Donnetta, "I would have had trouble paying for the funeral arrangements."
Al Lewis' column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Fridays. Respond to Lewis at denverpostbloghouse.com/lewis, 303-954-1967 or firstname.lastname@example.org.