The MTA wasn't the only pension provider that made an error resulting in big losses to Shirley Findel, a Long Island Rail Road engineer's widow who recently learned she's on the hook for nearly $27,000 due to the agency's 18 years of mistaken overpayments to her late husband's pension.
The federal Railroad Retirement Board told her Friday that, after inquiries were made about her pension, it discovered it, too, had made an error, which, in a bit of good news, it will now remedy.
Findel, who turns 80 next month and now lives in New Port Richey, Fla., will receive about $400 more a month through the federal pension than she has been getting since reporting the death of her husband, Harry, 83, last September to his pension providers.
"Thank the Lord," said Findel, after learning of the change in a call from the federal board's Tampa office. She will begin getting the higher benefits starting this week. "This is the first time I've been real happy since Harry died."
She added she told the board employee notifying her of the change, "I think if I were a drinking woman, I'd go out and have a few drinks. He said, 'OK, I'll have a few for you.' "
The federal Railroad Retirement Board, which administered scores of fraudulent disability pensions for LIRR retirees until recent prosecutions ended them, had told Findel's widow last fall it would no longer administer his pension because he'd worked briefly for a private bus company after his retirement from the railroad.
It asserted that he had "broken connection" to the railroad, and as a result, she would have to get his retirement benefits through the Social Security Administration -- and lose a portion of his railroad pension.
But after inquiries from Newsday, a spokesman for the federal board, Michael Freeman, said in an email, "A closer examination of Mr. Findel's records has determined that his employment outside the rail industry did not break his current connection. As a result the RRB will be paying Mrs. Findel's widow's pension, not SSA."
Harry Findel, who had worked for the LIRR for more than 25 years before retiring at age 55 in 1985, had received pensions from the MTA, from the federal Railroad Retirement Board in lieu of Social Security payments, and from his union.
The union pension ceased upon his death. The MTA pension continued, since the couple had opted, when submitting retirement papers in 1985, to receive a lower amount so it would continue after his death.
Shirley Findel recalled that the MTA pension payments decreased in 1995 after he turned 65, and it was from that date that the MTA said the error was made and the overpayments began. Now, she faces deductions of up to $380 a month from her MTA pension. The agency's latest offer is to deduct $240 a month until the full $26,707.20 is repaid.
She'll get retroactive pension benefits from the federal Railroad Retirement Board, Freeman said, which will cover repayments to the Social Security Administration for its payments to her of more than $1,600 a month in benefits received since last fall.
For now, she's just glad to straighten out the issues with the federal board, after months of confusion and distress over how a brief post-retirement job could have broken a connection to a rail industry in which her husband labored for decades.
"I was so happy about the $400, to get that off my back," she said. "I never really understood what was going on."