retirees come out fighting
Group plans rallies, letters, possible suit over benefit
By Jeff Smith
Rocky Mountain News
Saturday, November 11, 2006
A Qwest retirees group plans to fight benefit cuts by
staging rallies, writing letters to company directors,
talking to lawmakers and possibly filing a lawsuit. The
Association of U S West Retirees' board came up with its
plan during an all-day meeting Thursday near Denver.
Retirees are angry because Qwest Chief Executive Dick
Notebaert last month notified them that the Denver telco
would be capping health care and life-insurance benefits for
thousands of retirees. The health care caps affect only
nonunion workers who retired after 1990.
Nelson Phelps, executive director of the Association of U S
West Retirees, said the group already held a rally in Omaha
and plans to organize similar events in other major cities
in Qwest's local phone region, including Denver.
Members have sent hundreds of letters and e-mails to
Notebaert, and the group is starting to send those letters
to the directors of the board as well. And the retirees'
group is considering filing legal action over the life
insurance issue, if Qwest doesn't show a change of heart
within the next 90 days.
The company is capping life-insurance benefits for all
retirees at $10,000 starting Jan. 1. Previously, the
benefit was equivalent to a year's salary.
Phelps said he has heard of seriously ill members who are
considering going off medication because their families were
counting on much larger life insurance benefits.
"Since Democrats have swept the House and Senate, we'll be
contacting our Congress people and try to tell our story and
see if we can get some support," Phelps said.
Qwest spokesman Bob Toevs said it was a difficult decision
for Qwest to cap the benefits of some of its retirees but
noted that the benefit packages overall remain competitive.
Health care costs for all companies, he added, are rising at
two to four times the rate of inflation. Most companies
already require retirees to pay portions of their premiums.
Toevs said the health care caps will affect only 9,000 of
Qwest will continue paying premiums for retirees who left
before 1991 in accordance with a legal agreement. And Qwest
is continuing to pay the full premiums of union retirees as
a result of recent contract negotiations.
Toevs noted that Notebaert himself notified the retirees
group of the decision last month, rather than leave it to a
human resources official.
Retirees also have complained that they haven't had a
pension increase in a decade. Toevs said Qwest hasn't paid
a cost-of-living increase because it's had to invest in
other areas to avert a possible bankruptcy in 2002 and to
ensure the company's ability to survive in the future.
"The challenge this company faces every day is to balance
its costs and resources," Toevs said.
Retirees also were upset this week when three executives
including Notebaert netted a total of $43 million from stock
option sales. Notebaert said he will give the after-tax
profits of his $18.4 million to charities.