A proposal to cut 40 percent of the pension benefits for all current and former employees of St. Joseph Health Services of Rhode Island is off the table – at least for now.
The decision in Providence Superior Court Wednesday came as more than 100 current and former hospital employees protested anticipated cuts to the pension plan outside the courthouse. The pension plan is severely underfunded, and in receivership, a process similar to bankruptcy.
Carrying signs that read, “Be fair to those who care,” and “What Would Jesus Do?” the protesters -- most of them retirees -- directed much of their anger at the Dioceses of Providence for what they said was the mishandling of their pensions.
Retiree Donna Myers, who worked 34 years as a hospital administrator, said the Diocese of Providence has a responsibility to take care of its former employees.
“I suppose what we really want,’’ Myers said, “is for them to actually sit with us, and tell us what happened, and why, and what they plan to do about it now.”
The Diocese of Providence on Wednesday released a statement expressing concern for the pension plan members but maintaining it is not responsible for their plight.
“The Diocese of Providence understands and shares their concerns, and we hope that their difficult situation will come to a positive resolution as soon as possible,’’ the statement reads in part. “The Diocese of Providence did not create this problem and we are not able to resolve it.”
Lynn Blaise, president of the hospital workers union local at Our Lady of Fatima Hospital, said the union is hoping that the receiver and co-counsel “will do the investigation, and find out all those that should be held accountable, so that we get the benefits that had been promised to all of us.”
It’s unclear, however, how those promises will be kept. The pension plan doesn’t have enough funds to pay the benefits owed to the plan’s more than 2,700 members without significant reductions, according to Stephen DelSesto, a Providence lawyer and court-appointed receiver for the plan.
DelSesto initially recommended an across-the-board 40 percent cut for all beneficiaries. But on Wednesday he asked Judge Brian Stern to withdraw the request, saying he needed to discuss the benefit reductions with other lawyers representing some of the beneficiaries.
Among them is former Attorney General Arlene Violet. A former nun, Violet has offered to represent retirees whose pensions are so small they could be considered hardship cases.
That worries Barbara O’Neil, a corporate compliance officer who was hoping to retire in December, when she turns 60. O’Neil has worked 41 years at three hospitals run by St. Joseph’s parent company, CharterCare Health Services.
“Whatever I am to receive, because I am 60, has to last me for 25 to 30 year,’’ O’Neil said. “So I’m not in favor of any group getting more or less of a cut than anyone else. I think the only fair thing for everybody is to get paid out what they earned.”
Rhode Island Senate President Dominick Ruggerio, whose district includes Fatima, has called for a criminal probe of the pension case.
Another court hearing on the matter is scheduled for Oct. 27th.