Mary Hartshorne’s retirement hasn’t turned out the way she planned.
Mary dedicated 28 years to St. Clare’s Hospital of Schenectady, New York, where she worked in the radiology department. She had planned to retire on the pension she’d been promised for decades.
But five years ago, the Catholic hospital informed more than 1,100 former employees that those pensions would be reduced or, worse, would not be coming at all. A lawsuit brought by AARP Foundation and several New York attorneys alleges that even after St. Clare’s closed in 2008 and received $28.5 million from the state as a pension fund bailout, officials continued to mismanage the retirement plan and mislead pensioners.
Feeling betrayed — and outraged — Mary, 73, became the face of the St. Clare’s Pension Recovery Alliance, a group fighting to reclaim the pensions they are owed. “I’m the second oldest of a big family, so being the leader, being the one that takes charge, that comes naturally,” says Mary.
As one of 10 children raised in a working-class Catholic household, Mary knew there would be no money for college. Nearby St. Clare’s had a radiology training program, which seemed like Mary’s best option. “It wasn’t what I wanted to do. I wanted to be a teacher. That was my plan, but the Lord had a different one.”
Working at a hospital for the underserved and underinsured wasn’t without sacrifice. Salary increases were often forgone; they were offered, but staff were told that raises for them might mean layoffs for someone else. “There’s no way we wanted that to happen, so we’d say, OK, we don’t have to have raises this year.’ We were told, ‘Don’t worry because we have that pension for you. That’s guaranteed.’” Mary trusted their word. She knew the church wouldn’t let her down.
That family-like environment and the connection to the church she grew up in made it all the more painful when Mary received a letter telling her that her pension had been reduced, and that in three weeks’ time she would begin receiving far less than she had been promised. “It was awful. I thought they had made an error.”
But it wasn’t an error. As a Catholic-run hospital, St. Clare’s was able to use its relationship with the diocese to take advantage of the church exemption to federal laws that safeguard pensions. When reality sank in, Mary says, “we realized that we had to get into a much more powerful position.” The pensioners began a search for legal representation, and in September 2019, with the help of several local attorneys and AARP Foundation, they filed suit against multiple defendants, including the Roman Catholic Diocese of Albany.