Her husband, Ron Slutter, worked for Jersey Central Power & Light (JCP&L) for nearly 36 years. He died of cancer at age 58. Knowing his death was imminent, Ron made arrangements to retire, a move that would allow his wife to receive the largest possible company pension benefit after his death. He was told by JCP&L, his widow said, that his official retirement date had to be on the first of the month — but died 17 hours and 40 minutes before the paperwork was finalized.
Thanks to a tangle of bureaucratic rigidity, legal fine print and the timing of her husband’s death, Brenda, 59, receives only half the pension benefit her husband meant for her to receive.
“If January only had 30 days, he would have made it,” Brenda said.
BUREAUCRATS AND TECHNICALITIES
Ron Slutter was a popular guy at JCP&L, working up the ladder until he was in charge of teams that buried underground cables. His personnel file is decorated with letters thanking him for exceptional service. He had 165 unused sick days on the books when he died.
In 1998, Ron was diagnosed with asbestosis, an incurable lung condition caused by long-term exposure to asbestos. (In medical reports, his doctors said they believe it was contracted after asbestos exposure on the job, and the Slutters filed a worker’s compensation claim in 2000. That case has not yet been resolved; JCP&L declined comment, citing employee confidentiality concerns.)
Ron worked through his illness until late 2005, when he was diagnosed with colon, stomach, spleen and pancreatic cancer, which his medical reports indicate commonly follow asbestosis.
By January 2006, knowing he was dying, Ron took steps to maximize the pension he accrued during his 35-plus year career with JCP&L, his wife said.
He knew if he died as an active employee, Brenda would receive only a 50 percent payment option on his pension — a loss of more than $7,200 a year. So on Jan. 24, 2006, he informed his benefits department he wanted to retire immediately.
The Slutters were told Ron’s official retirement date would have to wait until Feb. 1 because the company processes retirement dates only on the first of the month.
Ron completed all the necessary paperwork from his hospital bed, electing a pension payout option — known as the 100 percent spousal option — that would continue to pay 100 percent of his pension to his wife for her lifetime.
Ron died at 6:20 a.m. on Jan. 31, 17 hours and 40 minutes before his official retirement date and 54 days after his cancer diagnosis.
As Brenda grappled with the death of her husband of 36 years, she thought her financial future was secure. But then JCP&L gave her unexpected news: because Ron died as an active employee, his retirement was never official. Therefore, his wife was due only a 50 percent benefit rather than the 100 percent pension payout she would have received had Ron held out a few more hours.
Three years later, Brenda Slutter is still fighting. She’s talked to the benefits department, sent letters to JCP&L executives, tried going through her husband’s union and submitted appeals to the company’s Retirement Board — to no avail. She’s now retained an attorney.
“I’m not trying to sue them for anything. I just want what my husband wanted for me,” Brenda Slutter said.
Brenda was already retired when Ron died, but to make ends meet she takes occasional cleaning jobs. She hasn’t been able to tap into her retirement savings without facing penalties because she’s not yet 59 1/2.
“They said to me, ‘Well, we gave you his full life insurance,’ because if my husband had retired, the company would have only given me $30,000 of his $98,000 life insurance,” Brenda Slutter said. “Mind you I paid the policy premiums. They did me no favor.”
Bamboozled contacted JCP&L to talk about the case, but the company wouldn’t discuss any particulars.
“We respect the privacy of all of our employees and do not publicly discuss or disclose any personal information,” said Ronald Morano, spokesman for First Energy, the parent company of JCP&L. “We work diligently to ensure that our employees and their families understand their benefits and the options available to them.”
THE LEGAL SIDE OF THINGS
JCP&L isn’t legally bound to pay Brenda Slutter the full benefit, but it could choose to work around the letter of the law because Ron’s intent was clear.
“Look aside the technicalities of the law,” said Edward Cohen, the attorney for JCP&L’s labor unions, including Local 327 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, to which Ron Slutter belonged. “The company knew in reality that he wanted her to have the 100 percent benefit.”
Ron Slutter filed all the right forms. He just didn’t live long enough.
If JCP&L didn’t want to let the pension law slide, it could have assigned Ron an earlier retirement date. Even today, nothing but company policy is stopping JCP&L from making that date change retroactively.
“The reality is there’s no one who would complain if they gave her the pension,” Cohen said. “Can they say they’re not supposed to do that? Yes. But who’s going to complain? Nobody.”
After investigating Brenda Slutter’s story, Ron Slutter’s work and benefit history with JCP&L and the 17 hours, Bamboozled asked the company to once again reconsider Brenda Slutter’s pension payout.
“That’s a discussion between the company and the family,” said Morano, the JCP&L spokesman.
Brenda Slutter isn’t surprised by the company’s response, and she’s not giving up her fight.
“This is not how you reward someone for doing an excellent service for your company,” she said. “I guess First Energy needs half of my husband’s pension more than I do.”