Dozens of Wanamakers employees never received their pensions

Bill Whiting’s work at Wanamakers holds a dear place in his heart. For Whiting, who worked there in his 20s and 30s, it was a deeply formative time and a lot of fun.

He was hired as a corporate designer in the 1970s, the heyday of the department store, and during his nearly seven years there, he worked on fashion shows and window displays, and even designed a massive Shinto shrine for the Japan department store fair.

He immortalized the tie and shoelaces he wore to the interview, using them as upholstery on two small French chairs he made for a 19th-century replica of a townhouse on Spruce Street. Decades later, he still keeps in touch with many of his former co-workers.

But there’s something about the job that doesn’t sit well with Whiting, now 74:

He never got his pension.

He’s sure he contributed to it and isn’t sure how to approach it. Through a Facebook group, he has found more than 40 former employees who are in the same boat.

Some tried Macys current owner after several Wanamakers purchases and had no luck. Others, like Whiting, tried the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp. (PBGC), the government agency that protects workers’ pensions. A representative told him that in order to help former workers, the PBGC needed to know the pension plan number. But Whiting had no record of that time. Neither did his colleagues.

You know, from your 20s to your early 30s, I don’t think it ever occurs to you that you’re going to get old, let alone die, he said.

Many, he said, have given up on receiving the money they were promised.

READ MORE: An author who sold at Wanamakers

A Macy’s spokesman said the company will evaluate any requests from former employees about retirement and will send a written response.

The situation of Whiting and his colleagues is not unusual. Employees who have worked at a company like Wanamakers that has been bought and sold over the years are particularly vulnerable to losing track of their pensions.

The PBGC has benefits for 61,000 workers known as missing participants whose employers terminated their pension plans and transferred benefits to the agency, a PBGC spokesman said.

Wanamakers and two of the companies that bought it over the years, Woodward & Lothrop and JCPenney, discontinued their defined benefit plans, the PBGC spokesman confirmed. When a pension plan ends, it no longer pays recurring benefits. Instead, the money is converted into lump sum payments or annuities.

The PBGC said it could not comment on specific cases, but encouraged former employees to contact the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp. (1-800-400-7242) even if they do not have a retirement plan number.

Ron Garwood worked at Wanamakers for 45 years through five different owners, including Macys. It was the best career he could have had, he said. As visual merchandise manager, he led a team that designed how merchandise was displayed throughout the store, and the company allowed his group creative control. He started there in 1966.

In those days, he said, money was no object.

READ MORE: Step inside the Wanamaker Organ, the world’s largest playable instrument

He remembers members of the Wanamaker family being present around the store, knocking on windows and greeting workers. They made us feel special, he said.

But Garwood, who is now 80 and lives in Tennessee, said he never got his pension either.

Tyler Compton, director of the UMass Boston Pension Action Center, which focuses on helping people in the New England area track down their lost pensions, called it “unfortunately very, very common that workers don’t know how to get their benefits.” have won The good news, however, is that pensions are protected by the government through the PBGC.

It’s extremely rare for a pension to simply disappear, she said. That said, it is very difficult to track them down.

Her center serves 300 to 350 clients a year. The recovery process can take anywhere from six to 18 months, and even longer if a pension plan disagrees that an employee is owed. In that case, her team helps retirees file a claim for benefits and eventually appeal, if necessary. Sometimes the discrepancy is due to a record-keeping error, she said, as some records are so old they were handwritten or composed on typewriters.

The Mid-America Pension Rights Project covers workers in Pennsylvania who are trying to collect their pension.

After the Inquirer contacted the PBGC, the agency offered its assistance to Whiting. He’s in talks with it now, as well as the Mid-America Pension Rights Project.

Garwood, however, doesn’t hold out much hope that Hell will take his pension.

He could certainly use it; he and his partner are on Social Security, which is great, but there’s only so much, and he said there are people he knows from his Wanamakers days who he’d like to help financially.

Technically, it really should have gone to us, Garwood said. So is retirement.

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