Can You Afford to Retire?

robin gilinger - falling into the new reality


Robin Gilinger faces an uncertain future in which she must manage her own retirement account.

In 1986 when she began working as a United Airlines flight attendant, Robin Gilinger wasn't thinking much about retirement. She was only 22 and thrilled to be working for a widely respected company. "As soon as I started working, I thought, 'This is the job I want,'" says Gilinger.

She also liked knowing United provided employees with good wages and benefits. By starting with United so early, she'd qualify for a full pension at the age of 55. "After that, I wanted to make the choice," she says. "I'd be able to donate my time to causes that I believed in and be able to retire and leave a company that I put in a very long period of good work."

Today, after 20 years with United, that retirement scenario is gone. As part of United's restructuring under Chapter 11 bankruptcy, the company dumped its underfunded pension obligations on the government's Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (PBGC), which insures only a fraction of the pension Gilinger was promised. Like Pat O'Neill, a mechanic with United, she received a letter from the PBCG informing her that her pension had been slashed: from $2,500 a month to just $500 a month.

To cover the shortfall in her pension, Gilinger will have to work until she is 65 and hope she can save enough and invest wisely in her new 401(k). United has switched its employees over to defined-contribution plans. Now it is up to the employee to see that their investments yield a return large enough to sustain them through their retirement years.

"It's very depressing," Gilinger says. "I was a good employee. Now I have to change the picture completely in the middle of my life, … and hope that in the end I will be able to accomplish the things that I set out to do from the beginning."

Mid-career United employees like Gilinger are caught in the middle: Older workers will receive more of their promised pensions, while younger workers can work longer to build up their 401(k)s. And then there's the worry of managing her own investments: "If I make a mistake in the next 20 years in where I invest, I could lose everything."

Gilinger does not feel that she is well-equipped to steer her investment through the market's troubled waters. "I am definitely not an expert in the stock market," she says. "People who work on Wall Street don't have all the answers either, so how is the normal American going to make the right decisions on where to invest their money?"

In the meantime, Gilinger is left trying to save enough while working longer, and for less. In the late '90s, she was making about $40,000 a year. Today, because of wage and benefit concessions her union made during United's bankruptcy, her salary is in the low $30s, and she must pay a larger share of her health and dental insurance. She's also working more flights. "My husband now has to be there for our daughter, to supply that time that I should be there," she says. "So it's been very difficult for my family."

The cuts in pay and benefits taken their toll on Gilinger's morale, especially since United's CEO, Greg Tilton, retained his own pension, which he brought from his previous employer and which United promised to pay him. "There is a lot of resentment towards his $4.5 million pension that he's kept," she says. "How can someone take $4.5 million from a company when [he's] asking everybody else not to have a pension -- people that have worked for this company for 30, years, 20 years, 15 years? He's only been here for three years!"

Despite the sacrifices she's had to make, Gilinger still hopes to spend her career with United. "The hardest thing is not knowing that I'll be able to retire with United," she says. "I'm not confident that United will survive until I can retire."

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posted may 16, 2006

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