The Willers, like thousands of others retirees from Kodak, aren’t sure what the future holds, with benefits for retirees cut in recent years. This fall, rumors of bankruptcy again are swirling and a plummet in stock didn’t help the faith. Today, the Willers members of EKRA, a retiree advocacy group started in 2009 that has a mission of advocating for retirees as Kodak navigates its future.
Lynda Willer has fond memories of working at Kodak. Hired at the age of 17 in the late 60s, she remembers walking into the “city” of Kodak Park, with its own transportation system, fire department, and tourist operation.
She remembers working as a team with other employees, she remembers the anniversary parties for long-time workers, the free bus rides to work.
“Kodak, to me, was my life,” says Willer, a Greece resident who retired from the film giant as a customer service representative after 38 years. “I loved working, I loved going to work. I loved the feel of Kodak, and what it did for me, and how it helped me grow. It gave me opportunities.”
Her husband, Jerry Willer, an employee for around 37 years, worked for many years in research and development for new products. He remembers millions of dollars devoted to new products, even those that flopped, and the devotion to chemical-based imaging, even in the early days of digital creeping onto the market.
But the Willers, like thousands of others retirees from Kodak, aren’t sure what the future holds, with benefits for retirees cut in recent years. This fall, rumors of bankruptcy again are swirling and a plummet in stock didn’t help the faith. Today, the Willers members of EKRA, a retiree advocacy group started in 2009 that has a mission of advocating for retirees as Kodak navigates its future.
“We’re watching what happens with other companies in similar situations,” Jerry Willer said. “We’re trying to get as smart as we can to help maximize our health care benefits, that’s what most at risk.”
EKRA has been holding educational meetings for its members, and Kodak retirees new to the group, to help them prepare for a worst-case scenario. The last session had 600 people registered. EKRA estimates there are around 38,000 Kodak retirees nationwide, and roughly 22,000 to 23,000 in the Rochester area.
Presently working for the company, there are around 6,000 to 7,000 employees locally.
President of EKRA, Bob Volpe, said at the last session that EKRA's goal isn’t to “bite the hand that feeds.” The best thing to happen is for Kodak to survive, but should Kodak go bankrupt, retirees would no longer have health insurance at the group rates offered now. On their own, costs would likely be increased, Volpe said.
In the case of a merger, it would be up to the new company to make its own arrangements.
“What they need to do is take a look at the elements of their cost and their utilization,” he said. “They need to understand what they utilize, and what they need, or the kind of plan they have if they have a chronic illness.”
For MVP, Medicare Advantage plans range form a premium of $0 a month to $254. Excellus monthly premiums range from $20 to $137, and both plans offer correlating scales for doctor visits, specialty visits, hospital stays, vision and dental.
The overall goal in working with Kodak, Volpe says, is to have win-win outcomes. Right now, the company expands somewhere between $200 and $300 million on unfunded benefits, the majority of which is health care and a small portion of which is unfunded pensions.
“We want to be able to provide some perspective of the retirees regarding opportunities for effectively making some changes that could help the company, and not hurt the retirees.”
Alan Brakoniecki, media relations for Kodak, says that Kodak, like any other company, reviews and makes adjustments to its benefits as necessary to stay competitive, but doesn’t speculate on what those are in the future.
But as questions arise, Brakoniecki says the company’s practice is to deal with individual situations.
“EKRA is among a number of Kodak retiree groups. Although our practice is to deal with individual retirees to better address their diverse interests, from time to time we have met with, and will continue to meet with, groups of retirees to share information, respond to questions, and to listen to input on a variety of subjects,” Brakoniecki said in an email.
It’s a strange reality for someone like Lynda Willer, who once saw Kodak sparkle in rosy light at the heyday American manufacturing.
“When Jerry and I sit down, if we’re going to take a trip as retirees, we’re not entirely comfortable, saying ‘This is what we planned for retirement, this is what we’d like to do, but the way things are today maybe we should sit back and wait,’” she said.
Jerry agrees — it’s a daily topic of discussion in their household.
“The idea of a corporation nurturing you in your retirement, that’s gone away now,” he said, “All those things are changing as time passes, and some of us are feeling the pain of the evolution of how life is lived.”
The examples are plenty, with a story behind every employee. Take Rosemary Sidor, an 80-year-old woman who lives in Pittsford. Her husband was a longtime Kodak employee who passed away last year, and she’s able to retain his health benefits.
She attended the last EKRA meeting to learn about the future of her benefits, as well as get information for a friend of hers who is a Kodak retiree and was too ill to attend herself.
Figuring out the system, Sidor says, is new to her.
“In my generation the husband took care of the business, and the wife took care of the family and the kids,” Sidor says.
Presently, spouses of Kodak retirees on the health benefits plan will pay an increase of 10 percent a year in their coverage, until they are responsible for the full payment 2018.
Sidor says if she loses her coverage, she’ll miss her gym membership the most, where she takes spinning class once a week. But looking at the big picture, Sidor says its a sad scenario, what the comfort of a lifetime of hard work has come to.
"It’s unfortunate because the whole country is like that, it isn’t just Kodak,” Sidor said. “We’ve forgotten about how to take care of each other.”