Hundreds of current and former employees of the Diocese of La Crosse have learned the pension benefits they were counting on won’t be there for their retirement.
Bishop William Patrick Callahan informed members of its Lay Employees’ Retirement Plan in a letter that the diocese is terminating their pension plan, which has been underfunded for years.
“After much analysis, discussions and prayers, it has been determined that it is necessary to terminate the Diocese of La Crosse Lay Employees’ Retirement Plan at this time,” Callahan wrote in the letter dated Feb. 27 and received by many employees over the weekend.
The plan covered Catholic school teachers, custodians, secretaries, rectory workers and other lay employees throughout the diocese, which serves 19 west-central Wisconsin counties covering an area extending from around Bloomer to the north, Prairie du Chien to the south, Wausau to the east and the Minnesota border to the west.
“It is alarming,” Regis Catholic Schools President Mark Gobler said Tuesday, estimating that more than 1,000 people could be affected by the change.
The pension plan members won’t learn the full impact of the plan termination until late May, when the diocese promised to deliver more information, Gobler said.
“It was quite a shock when we received the letters,” said retired Regis High School teacher Howard Campbell, who taught German and social studies courses at the Eau Claire private school for 40 years and has continued serving as a substitute teacher for the past three years. “People were relying on that income. Now to have this happen, it was devastating.”
Callahan’s letter notes that the pension plan was frozen in 2007 and replaced with a 403(b) retirement plan, meaning members’ accrued benefits didn’t increase after Dec. 31, 2006. In the meantime, he wrote, the diocese continued to bill parishes and allocate funds from the Diocesan Annual Appeal to help make up for the shortfall in the underfunded plan, but the efforts weren’t enough to fully fund it.
All funds in the plan will be distributed as a one-time lump sum payment to eligible participants based on the ratio of available plan assets divided by total plan liabilities, with the impact varying for each individual, the letter indicates.
“This difficult decision has been made to ensure that all plan participants receive as much benefit as possible,” Callahan wrote.
Monthly payments will continue until the final payout is made, tentatively set for sometime this summer, the letter indicates.
Naturally, the big question hanging over plan members is how big those one-time payments will be, Campbell said.
“That’s a huge factor,” Campbell said, “but right now everything’s very much up in the air.”
He fears the payout will be far less than longtime employees might have received if they continued receiving regular monthly pension payments of $800 to $1,200 a month for decades.
“We knew it would never be much, but it was just enough to get by on. We relied on it,” he said. “Now people are left wondering: ‘How am I going to come up with $1,000 a month? How am I going to cut back?’ “
Diocese of La Crosse spokesman Jack Felsheim declined to comment Tuesday on how many people will be affected or what led to the decision to terminate the pension plan.
Pension plan documents indicate the defined benefit program was created in 1974 and is administered by St. Ambrose Financial Services in La Crosse.
With so little information coming from the diocese, pension plan members are dealing with a lot of anxiety regarding their financial futures.
“People are very, very apprehensive, to put it mildly,” Campbell said. “The main thing is the very tenuous uncertainty hanging over their heads. That’s the frightening thing for a lot of people.”
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