Bad Old Days

Richard Quinn

I RECALL PAYDAY IN 1961, when I was at my first job. There was a paymaster who would deliver our paychecks. At break time, we would be off to the nearest bank to cash our checks. I deposited most of mine in a savings account, plus $2 in my Christmas Club account. But many of my fellow workers took the whole check in cash.

I always thought taking cash was a bit risky. I once got up the nerve to ask a few friends why they took cash. One told me that, once home, he placed the cash in envelopes designated for various bills and then paid those bills in cash.

Another friend said he didn’t want his wife to know how much he made. He gave her an allowance and kept the rest. This was especially important when overtime pay was involved. The extra cash was not, in his view, part of the family’s finances. I later realized this was a common attitude. Whatever the man earned was his money. Remember, this was 61 years ago.

A few years later, the paymaster was gone and checks were mailed home. There was near panic in some parts of the company as workers scrambled to change the address where the checks were sent. Many designated their work address.

Those of us in employee benefits earned the ire of the unions when we decided to mail group term-life insurance certificates to each employee. It never occurred to me that not only did many spouses not know the amount of insurance in force, but also many didn’t know there was life insurance. The insurance was equal to one-and-a-half-times base annual pay. In a few instances, we created family strife when it was learned the spouse wasn’t the beneficiary.

This—what I call pure selfishness—extended beyond pay. Before the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) of 1974, a worker had total control over his pension, married or not. To maximize his benefit, it was normal for workers to take a single-life annuity. But ERISA required that, if married, the pension would be paid as a joint-and-survivor annuity, unless the spouse waived her right. I welcomed that change not only because it was fair, but also I was tired of receiving calls from new widows looking for their pension and having to tell them there was none. “But my George told me I would get everything I deserved” carried a double meaning, alas.

In 1984, the Retirement Equity Act created the qualified domestic relations order (QDRO) and added a new wrinkle to the male-dominated “it’s mine, I earned it” attitude. Now, it was clear a spouse was entitled to a portion of the worker’s pension and other retirement income benefits—that they had earned the money together.

This change was a real shock to some workers and retirees. I received more than one threat from workers faced with the prospect of losing a portion of their pension to an ex-spouse. One older retiree showed up at the building with a gun when his pension was cut in half. He had ignored the QDRO that had been filed, and I had no choice but to enforce it.

Thankfully, those one-sided days of handling family income are long gone—I hope. Many of us, me included, dislike excessive government regulation. But there are times when society needs a push to do the right thing.

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