I returned home from the Social Security office brimming with optimism. I had been treated courteously, taken seriously, and given a pathway to determine whether I was owed thousands of dollars in back retirement benefits. With my new-found hope I had to remind myself that my record still showed a zero contribution toward FICA (Federal Insurance Retirement Act) for the first four years of the 1970s when I had been employed by the Cook County Department of Public Aid. Agent Pickens’ words rang in my ears: “County departments back then commonly took deductions for a pension fund and didn’t pay into social security”. I was on a mission to find out if that was true in my case. Was it possible I was eligible for a pension?
That evening I emailed my cousin in Chicago. Pat had worked for Social Security when I was with Public Aid and for many years after until she retired. Summarizing my situation in my note, I asked if she knew anything that could be helpful, or did she have any suggestions to track down records from the long-defunct county department.
Checking my computer the next morning, I was pleased to find an email from Pat with the name of a resource she thought might be useful: the State (of Illinois) Employee’s Retirement System, referred to as SERS. Is every government agency known by an acronym? Going to the site, I scanned down the list of thirty-plus topics along the side of the home page to start my search. I selected ‘Tier I Information’ which sounded like a good starting point. Clicking on that, I then had to choose among seven sub-headings. Selecting the first one with the word ‘benefits,’ I was confronted with a chart of mathematical calculations and formulas for various years of employment and income levels. I felt a headache coming on.
I went back to the home page and clicked on topics at random, trying to discern exactly what SERS was and who was eligible for the System. As I bounced around, I came across pictures of attractive grey-haired people, all laughing, as they walked hand-in-hand on a beach, or played with a grandchild, or even as they stared at a computer screen. From scraps of text I picked up along the way, I gleaned that SERS was an optional pension plan for civil service employees. One screen entitled ‘Legislation’ was a listing of House bills that had become laws. Clicking on some from my time and later, I noticed several had been signed off by former governors who were now cooling their heels in the state penitentiary. Were those laws still valid?
I finally decided my best bet was to go to the ‘Frequently Asked Questions’ to see if my query was even relevant. As I read through them I realized most laid out possible scenarios that might impact retired worker’s benefits; such as earning income after starting to receive a pension, or remarrying after the death of the spousal recipient. The most conscientious query had to be from the anxious retiree who wrote, “I am receiving a pension from SERS. If I die, (if?) what should be done with that month’s check?" (The entire amount would go to the estate of the deceased. Even the government isn’t that mercenary.)
Scrolling down to the bottom of the FAQs, I found the phone number for the Chicago office of SERS. I studied it for several seconds, debating whether I should call and how to summarize my situation to be routed to the appropriate person. Unconsciously, I tapped on the edges of the pile of Social Security correspondence to straighten it into a perfect rectangle, then glanced at a hornet bumping against the window screen. Shrugging, I picked up the phone’s receiver and punched in the number with the familiar area code of 312.
Surprisingly, a live female voice answered on the second ring. Startled, I lost my words for a moment. “Uh, I’m a former employee of Public Aid, calling to check on my possible pension benefits from 1970 through 1973.” Silence on the other end. Did she think it was a prank call?
Her voice came back on, but with an edge. “You should be talking to the Cook County Pension Fund office,” she scolded.
“Yes, I think so,” I agreed. “Do you have that number?” She rattled it off like it was her own. “Thank you,” I gushed, grateful to have the number and to be able to conclude the conversation.
Without pausing to think about the next call, I pressed the numbers I had scribbled down. This time I got a menu. I held on to the bitter end when I could hit ‘0’ to speak to an agent. I was informed my wait time would be ten seconds. That’s a wait time? Even sooner a woman came on the line and volunteered her name. The personal touch seemed promising. I launched into my now-practiced spiel, starting with my beginning and end dates of employment with Public Aid, acknowledging the change to the State Department, and ending with the advice given to me by the agent at the Social Security office to check on whether I had paid into a pension fund.
“What’s your name?” she asked reasonably.
I gave her my name, then advised that I had two different names during the four years I was without benefits: my maiden name and my married name. I added the date of my marriage.
She sighed but remained on the line. “What’s your social?” she said, using civil service speak for social security number. I gave it to her. “Just a minute. It’ll take me some time to go that far back into old records.”
“Thanks.” She had to say far back and old like that? I waited.
She came back on. “I see we didn’t use social security numbers back then. Just names.” Egads. I was there before Social Security numbers were in common usage? That program started under Roosevelt.
“Is your middle name Jean?” she said suddenly.
"Yes,” I gasped in amazement.
“I found your record,” she enthused, like it was an archeological discovery.
“Oh, good!” I was equally excited. “What does it show for my pension or social security?”
I heard papers being shuffled. “Here it is. You paid into the Cook County pension fund from March of 1970 through December 31st of 1973. You opted to take it out in a lump sum at that time when the department was brought under the State.”
My shoulders slumped as my mind went back to when my first husband and I purchased a Victorian home listed on the historic registry at that time. It had sloping floors, leaky plumbing, windows that rattled with the slightest breeze, and the odor of cat urine in the back bedroom on the second floor. The offer of a lump sum pension payment had been irresistible. I needed the money and I was decades away from retirement. “That’s right. I remember doing that,” I said quietly. “Do you have the amount?”
“Yes. It was $2,696 dollars and twenty cents.” I wondered how much that was in today’s money; but it didn’t matter.
“Thank you so much for finding that information for me.” I tried to keep my voice positive.
“No problem at all. Anything else I can help you with?” You could call a suicide hot line and they would ask you that same question.
“That’s all. Thanks again.” I slowly hung up the receiver. I had come to the end of my quest. I was no worse off, although it felt like I had just lost something. After a moment, I shook my head and exhaled. I had at least done myself credit to follow through and cut a little red tape. Time to move on.
And that Victorian house? My husband swore he had seen the ghost of an old man several times in the upstairs hallway. We renovated it and sold it after only nine months for a tidy profit. I hadn’t lost my benefits; I had reinvested them in a haunted house. Sounds about right.