Problem Solver: Worker fights for retirement bonus

Northwestern restores $3,000 payment for longtime employee after earlier denial

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For 41 years, Cheryl Westbrook has worked for Northwestern University as a lab supervisor and phlebotomist.

She is, she said, a hardworking and dedicated employee.

When her department closed two years ago, Westbrook, then 60, was laid off.

At the time, she was not ready to retire.

"I truly enjoyed my job and agreed to return if it reopened even on a part-time basis," she said.

A little more than a year ago, a supervisor called and said there was, in fact, a part-time opening.

Westbrook jumped at the opportunity.

She continued working, but recently her health began to deteriorate. Westbrook, a kidney transplant patient, said she had begun experiencing some facets of organ rejection.

"I have now reluctantly decided to retire at the end of this month," she said.

When she went to the university to discuss her retirement, she was shocked to hear she would not be eligible for all her benefits.

She said she was told that because she had returned to her job on a part-time basis, she could not receive an earned retirement bonus for unused sick time, which she said amounted to $3,000.

"I was horrified," Westbrook said. "I did not understand how I could work more than 40-plus years for a well-known university and give them my all, was an extremely dedicated employee, then someone can sit in front of me and tell me such bad news. I was in tears all afternoon."

Westbrook said she went to her supervisor, who promised to work on her behalf to get the bonus restored.

"After some time, she informed me, too, that there were not going to be any changes and there was nothing more she could do," Westbrook said. "I lost all hope."

She was going to give up, but her sister encouraged her to email What's Your Problem?

She said that someone from Northwestern should have informed her that returning to her job on a part-time basis made her ineligible for her sick-time bonus — if that was, in fact, the case.

"All I want is my bonus, and the bonus is if you worked 30 years and you're 60 years old, you'll get a retirement bonus of sick time saved up, up to $3,000," Westbrook said. "It hurts to know that a big company like Northwestern University, who is so well-known, would have such a personnel policy that denies unknowing (and) trusting employees of their rightful retirement benefits."

The Problem Solver called Northwestern spokesman Al Cubbage, who promised to look into her case.

On Thursday, a university representative called Westbrook to say she had been misinformed.

Westbrook said she was told her status as a part-time worker has no effect on her retirement benefits, and she will receive her $3,000 sick-pay bonus. She said the university representative told her she should never have been told she was ineligible for her earned retirement benefits.

Cubbage said Northwestern's human resources office reviewed Westbrook's situation.

"She will receive a payout for her accumulated sick leave," he said.

The spokesman said that as of Dec. 31, Westbrook will be considered a retired Northwestern employee, which makes her eligible for additional benefits.

The $3,000 will be included in her last paycheck in December, Westbrook said she was told.

"I'm feeling very good," she said. "When the lady called me, I was in tears."

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