For 25 years, Martin Zombek labored at the bustling Langston Corp. plant in Cherry Hill, confident a good pension waited at the end of the assembly line.
"It was my plan to stay there until I was 62," Zombek said of his years at the company, which produced the massive machines that make corrugated cardboard boxes. "But the plant didn't stay open long enough."
When Langston closed its doors in 1999, Zombek was 59 and eligible for a $460-per-month pension, or about $5,520 a year.
Unlike government retirees, who can count on cost-of-living adjustments, Zombek and other Langston retirees will never see a raise in their checks. And while state workers with 25 years of service are entitled to nearly free health coverage for themselves and their dependents, Zombek's medical benefits ceased when the plant fell silent.
Retired Camden firefighter George Szychulski, 58, is faring much better financially. He figures he earned the health benefits that accompanied the $4,460-a-month pension or $53,520 a year he started receiving when turned in his uniform in 2000.
"I put in 31 years of service," said Szychulski, who made $76,454 in his top year. "I never got rich being a fireman, but I knew I'd get a good pension down the line."
Today, the Williamstown resident works part time for a construction company. He's staunchly opposed to any attempts to erode benefits for government workers.
"Politicians need to understand that a promise is supposed to be lasting," he said. "Remember November."
Meanwhile, Zombek and his wife, Elizabeth, found a way to live well despite their reduced income. They left New Jersey and moved to rural lower Delaware, where land is cheap and taxes are low.
In an era of corporate austerity, retirees are increasingly divided into the haves and have-nots: state employees who enjoy generous pensions and lifetime health packages, and private-sector workers with markedly smaller retirement benefits.
Government employees also enjoy other advantages, said Herb Bewley, principal at the Bewley Agency in Cherry Hill, an insurance and financial services firm affiliated with Allstate New Jersey.
While the overwhelming majority of state workers never suffer a layoff, employees in the private sector are vulnerable to downsizing that can erode their pensions, he said.
Bewley, 59, speaks from experience. He was laid off from Honeywell after 12 years of service and from Digital Equipment after eight years.
"I saw this coming in the late 1980s when the 401(k)s came out," he said. "That's why we tell people they need to get educated about planning for retirement."
Bewley will eventually collect pensions from both former employers, but he views that income as money that will simply supplement his retirement, "like golf fees."
The biggest share of his income will come from investments he made on his own.
Corporations are also shying away from pensions because they don't want to pay the premiums the government requires to insure defined-benefit plans, said Olivia Mitchell, director of the Pension Research Council at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.
"Defined-contribution plans, such as 401(k)s, are cheaper for companies and better for employees who change jobs a lot and want to take their retirement accounts with them," she said.
The great divide between public and private sectors is retiree health benefits, Mitchell said.
"Very few private-sector employers provide a retiree health offering at no charge, and many are turning off the spigot altogether," she said.
Benefits can change
Recent retiree Joe Destra Sr., 62, of Blenheim credits his union, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, for his $41,000-per-year pension. He also will receive health benefits until he's 65 and eligible for Medicare.
"When I worked nonunion, we got nothing," he said. "Getting in the union was the right career move for me. Plus, I always wanted to be an electrician."
White-collar retirees in the private sector, who rarely are represented by unions, aren't faring as well. When it comes to pensions and retirement benefits, Fortune 500 companies pale in comparison to the state.
A 62-year-old state employee earning $60,000 a year who retired after 25 years of service can expect a pension of $27,273 per year with free lifetime health care, according to a benefits calculator provided by the New Jersey Department of the Treasury.
A worker of the same age, salary and tenure at Campbell Soup Co. in Camden would be eligible for an annual pension of $18,000, spokesman John Faulkner said. The retiree also would receive $4,800 per year toward health care costs to be spent at his discretion. That amount would drop to $900 per year when the retiree turned 65 and became eligible for Medicare.
"Like many companies, our programs have gone through a lot of (changes)," Faulkner said, noting Campbell rolled out new retirement options in 1987, 1999 and 2005.
Change has been a bitter pill for 73-year-old Tony Colofranson of Oaklyn, who retired from Campbell's now-idle manufacturing plant in 1976 after a back injury.
"Campbell's made it off the sweat of the people of Camden and they were sweating blood," he said. "When the company uses you, it hurts."
Angered when Campbell reduced retiree health benefits in 1992, he was part of a class-action suit. A 1996 settlement pared benefits but established a hardship fund to help retirees pay out-of-pocket health-care costs exceeding $2,000 per year.
After the decision, Colofranson sold the Campbell stock he inherited from his father, a 49-year employee. He boycotted the company's products for years.
He said he receives a $232-per-month pension from Campbell, or $2,784 per year. And Colofranson might not have seen the last reduction in retiree health benefits.
In a 10-Q statement filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission in June 2004, Campbell announced the company was evaluating the Medicare Prescription Drug, Improvement and Modernization Act of 2003, which includes drug benefits for seniors.
"The company sponsors medical programs for some of its U.S. retirees and expects that this legislation will reduce the costs for some of these programs," the statement said.
As for Zombek, the Langston retiree, he's residing happily in Millsboro, Del., where he readily found a new job working at Georgetown Airport.
He isn't making the $50,000-plus he earned at Langston, but Zombek figures he doesn't need it because the cost of living is much lower.
When he left New Jersey in 1999, property taxes on his home in Blackwood were $3,300 a year and rising.
"Here, I pay $615 a year, and I live in a much nicer house," he said. "With my pension and investments, I do fine here."