Forget for a moment how you feel about your own financial situation. Forget if you feel that government workers get too many benefits. Forget what you think about the fiscal health of the governments that are on the hook for those employees’ pension payments.
And forget if you’re jealous that you don’t have a government pension of your own.
What you should remember is that workers who paid into the system and were promised benefits in exchange for service. They should get those promised benefits.
But Rocco Russo, a former postal service employee, says he’s being given the runaround with his pension.
Russo was 50 when he retired from the U.S. Postal Service in January of 2014. He served as the postmaster in New Vernon for 25 years, with a total of more than 30 years in service — if you count a couple of summers he worked at the Madison post office when he was in college.
Russo wasn’t initially counting those college summers, six months in total, towards his pension benefits.
But two months after Russo retired, he received a letter from the U.S. Office of Personnel Management (OPM), which manages, among other things, pension benefits for federal employees.
The letter said: “You performed service during which no retirement deductions were withheld from your salary… ”
That was his working time in college.
The letter said Russo could make a $357 payment to cover the benefits he would have contributed to over that time, and the extra time would be added to his retirement years and his pension.
The one-time payment would result in a $21.07 increase in Russo’s monthly benefits, OPM said.
So Russo sent the check, and it was cashed by the U.S. Treasury on April 28, 2014, records show.
But nothing changed for Russo’s pension.
He waited. Still nothing.
Russo said he called OPM that spring and was assigned a case worker who would look into the matter and call him back.
But no one called.
Russo said he called again in the summer. And in September, and October, and November, and December, and each time he was told the same thing. His case was assigned to a case worker, and his request was being processed. He should receive a call soon.
But no call ever came.
Frustrated, in December, Russo wrote a letter explaining his problem to his congressman, Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-11).
He received a response a week later.
“Congressman Frelinghuysen has asked that I contact the Office of Personnel Management regarding this matter,” a staffer’s letter said. “Please be assured that I will keep you apprised of all developments as they occur.”
But now, more than two months later, Russo hasn’t heard anything from the congressman’s office, either, he said.
So in January, Russo said, he called OPM again, leaving a message for a supervisor.
“She called me back on Jan. 12 saying she saw I had made a deposit of $357 in my pension account which I did not get credit for, and she was going to have someone pull my file,” Russo said. “I was told if I did not hear from someone from her office by Jan. 16 to call her back.”
By Jan. 28, Russo said, he didn’t hear anything, so he left the supervisor a message.
To date, he said, he hasn’t received a call back, nor has he seen an increase in his pension payment.
“I am sure the IRS would be just as understanding as I am if someone did not pay the taxes they owe a year later,” Russo said sarcastically. “No one seems to care.”
WHAT IT REALLY COSTS
Skeptics may say that an increase of $21.07 isn’t worth complaining about.
First, Russo paid the requested $357 to cover the pension costs for his college working days. The federal government cashed the check.
So where is that money? Within the guidelines of the system, he’s due the additional monthly payola.
And over time, the $357 would be worth a lot.
In just a year, the $21.07 increase adds up to $252.84, so he’d get back more than half his money. If Russo lives for 20 years, he’d receive an extra $5,056 and change in benefits.
But Russo’s dad is 85, and his mom is 84, so there’s a pretty good chance longevity is in Russo’s future.
The extra $21.07 per month — not counting any cost-of-living increases — would give Russo an extra $8,847.40 by the time he’s age 85.
Again, forget what you think about the pension system. This is money Russo earned through his service, and a pension system he paid into — with clear promises of what he’d get back.
We reached out to OPM, providing it with copies of Russo’s records and asking it to take a look at his case.
While we waited — timing is everything — Russo got a call from Rep. Frelinghuysen’s office. The caller asked if Russo had received a resolution yet. He didn’t, he said, so the staffer said the congressman’s office would send another note to OPM.
Then we got a call from OPM. It said it would look at the case, but the spokesman couldn’t give us any additional information.
Knowing there could be “privacy concerns” limiting what OPM could tell us directly, we suggested it could call Russo with an update.
By the end of business Friday, all the OPM spokesman could tell us was, “Our retirement services operations team will follow up with him on Monday.”
So the red tape continues, at least for a few more hours. If Russo gets a call today, we’ll update that in our comments section. If he doesn’t get a call, we’ll update that, too.
“If I had not sent the money, I would not have felt ripped off,” Russo said. “It would not have bothered me.”
But he did send the money and the check was cashed.
We’ll keep you posted.
Have you been Bamboozled? Reach Karin Price Mueller at Bamboozled@NJAdvanceMedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @KPMueller. Find Bamboozled on Facebook. Mueller is also the founder of NJMoneyHelp.com.