SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico – After 36 years teaching English at a Roman Catholic school near Puerto Rico's capital, Norma Cardoza planned to retire with a modest pension she trusted she would get from the Archdiocese of San Juan.
Her faith was misplaced.
Archdiocese officials in recent weeks informed Cardoza and several hundred other current and retired teachers that their pensions will be eliminated because payouts exceeded contributions. Enrollment at Catholic schools in Puerto Rico has plunged with so many families leaving the island for the U.S. mainland amid the island's economic crunch.
It has been a devastating blow to Catholic school teachers who had counted on those pensions to supplement the Social Security checks they'll be getting.
The church noted in the letter that its contract with employees allows it to terminate the pension plan at any moment and said the remaining money would be distributed among retired teachers. Officials signed off with, "May God bless you all."
"I'm 62 years old. Do you think I can come up with a pension plan in four years? There's no way," said Cardoza, who had expected to get $930 a month from the church upon a retirement that had been scheduled for May but she has now postponed. "That's why I find it so horrendous."
As Puerto Rico's government teeters on the brink of insolvency, the grim fate of this group of current and former teachers could signal more pain to come for other workers expecting pensions — not only at private workplaces like the church, but also in the island's troubled public sector.
Government workers haven't yet gotten the same bad news on pensions. But mired in a deep economic crisis, the island government has begun defaulting on billions in debt. Many financial experts here and on the U.S. mainland say underfunded public pension obligations totaling more than $41 billion will likely wind up on the chopping block.
If the money runs out, public school teachers, police officers, firefighters and thousands of other government employees could have their pensions cut, too.
Vicente Feliciano, an economist and business consultant in San Juan, predicts that various public pension systems will be unable to make full payments within two years. "When that happens, then what? Do we leave retirees on the street?" he says.
There are about 120,000 government employees and thousands more public sector retirees in Puerto Rico. Many, including teachers and police officers, are in retirement plans that are an alternative to Social Security so they wouldn't even get Social Security checks to depend on if their pensions were cut. The government's general fund is supposed to cover pension obligations if needed, but even that money is running out.
"We are extremely worried because the government has been completely negligent about this," said Pedro Pastrana, who represents a retired teachers union.
Gov. Alejandro Garcia Padilla, who was elected with the support of public sector unions, in 2013 approved government pension system changes that included raising the retirement age, which varies depending on type of job and number of years worked, and requiring employee contributions.
But the government began defaulting on debt last year and is expected to miss a $422 million payment due in May. Congress is considering a bill to create a federal oversight board that would have powers that might include layoffs and pension cuts sought by some investors in Puerto Rican bonds.
As officials in Washington and San Juan debate what to do about public pensions, the island's retired Catholic school teachers are already living in straitened circumstances.
Isabel Casanas, a former Catholic school director who came to Puerto Rico from Cuba in the 1960s, is considering work as a private tutor but worries her age could be a problem.
"People think that since I'm 83 years old, that I'm already in the afterlife," said Casanas, who retired last year. "I have worked all my life. I've never depended on anyone."
The Catholic school teachers who are losing their pensions said they there blindsided by the announcement.
The archdiocese created the pension plan in 1979 in part to lure teachers who were joining the island's public school system because of its pension plan. But the island's population has dropped as much as 10 percent over a decade in the largest exodus in many years.
"It doesn't cease to surprise me that it came from a Catholic entity, which is supposed to help others," said Ana Perez, a 53-year-old physical education teacher. "What about those 25 years that we have worked? We lost them."
It is unclear how much money is in the pension fund. Catholic officials did not respond to requests from The Associated Press for comment on the elimination of the pensions or if the fund was insured.
Cardoza had to cancel plans for a cruise and a visit to her children and grandchildren on the U.S. mainland. She gets angry when she talks about how officials did not respond to her questions.
"Thirty-six years of my life dedicated to teaching and this is what I worked for?" Cardoza said, her voice cracking. "I still wake up in the middle of the night saying, 'No, this can't be true.'"
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