That’s how much a forensic accountant told Carol Wartenberg and Laura Hohnecker that they are missing out on in retirement savings because, essentially, they are gay.
Together since 1986, the couple was unable to enroll in an investment plan since their relationship was not recognized by the state, and they want to stand up for couples just like them. They started Same-Sex Families for Retirement Equality with their nephew and are leading the way for other same-sex couples.
“They have overcome so much and to have this taken away from them in their golden years is just a slap in the face,” said Ryan Walker, the couple’s nephew.
The couple’s story begins in Panama City in 1986 when they met while working at a mental health facility. Wartenberg’s home was being sprayed for for pests, so she brought her small dog into work. When he got loose and ran into a meeting, she saw Hohnecker for the first time.
“I said, ‘What kind of an agency is this where dogs are running around?’” Hohnecker laughed.
The women got the opportunity to spend more time together when at another meeting, Wartenberg mentioned she needed subjects for her dissertation. Hohnecker offered to help, and the two hit it off and began dating, but not openly.
Unfortunately, when they were outed as lesbians, work became a difficult place for the both of them. The program director claimed that the two were only psychologists because of a “desire to sexually abuse girls.
“We spent our lives working with abused children so that was particularly horrific,” she said.
The last straw was when the director encouraged staff to open her interagency email, looking for communication between the two of them. In 1989, the couple decided to leave Panama City so Hohnecker could continue her education at Nova in South Florida.
“We were very careful to make sure that whatever endeavours we were in or whatever jobs we took, we were not going to be in the closet anymore,” Wartenberg said.
However, the discrimination didn’t stop. In her work, Hohnecker dealt with matters in family court and learned that several attorneys had spread derogatory rumors about her. At one point, an attorney asked if she was having an affair with another psychologist while she was on the stand — in a case about child custody.
Wartenberg worked in private practice, and when the father of a child she was treating found out she was a lesbian, he claimed malpractice.
But things were looking up for the couple. In 1999, Broward County passed the Domestic Partnership Act, recognizing same-sex couples and affording them many, but not all, rights of married couples. Wartenberg said they were “in the front of the line to get a certificate.”
Eventually, she moved to work for the Broward County School Board in 2003. As a government employee, she was enrolled in the Florida Retirement System (FRS). Since the county recognized their relationship, Hohnecker was eligible to receive health insurance and other benefits.
Incorrectly, the couple also assumed that Hohnecker would be eligible to be listed as a beneficiary on Wartenberg’s pension plan, which is run by the state and did not recognize same-sex or domestic partners. In 2007, she learned that her partner would not receive any savings from her pension plan, but that they needed to be enrolled in the county’s investment plan instead.
Years passed, and when marriage equality was passed in Iowa, Hohnecker’s home state, the two married. Then in 2015, the Defense of Marriage Act was overturned and it was the law of the land. Looking at their benefits, they could register as spouses, and Wartenberg looked to move back to a pension plan.
Unfortunately, she learned those enrolled in the FRS are only allowed to change their plan once (https://www.myfrs.com/FRSPro_ComparePlan_Change.htm) — she had already used that up when she switched from a pension to investment plan.
“I would never have made the second choice [of an investment plan] if Laura would have been able to receive my pension. So my situation was that I felt I'd been discriminated against because I had to make choices based on protecting my partner at a time when the heterosexual bias for the retirement plan was there,” Wartenberg said. “Broward County just hands you the retirement information. You're the one who is supposed to in some way figure out which plan is appropriate for you.”
In a statement to SFGN, Broward County Public Schools said that they are “required to follow the procedures outlined in the Florida Retirement System's (FRS) Employer Handbook, which provides employees with a one-time opportunity to change/transfer on their own initiative into the opposite plan prior to termination. This matter would be best taken up with the FRS.”
Angry, Wartenberg decided not to let what she thought was an injustice just slide by and filed a complaint with the FRS. After speaking with officials in Tallahassee, she says they agreed it didn’t seem fair but there was nothing they could do.
Now, the couple is taking on the state. They hired an attorney and have been working with Equality Florida and Lambda Legal. They also hired a forensic accountant, who calculated that the couple would be losing out on $170,000 in retirement savings due to their predicament.
“I think the number speaks for itself,” Walker, the couple’s nephew, said. “This wouldn’t have happened if they were straight. None of this would have happened if they were straight. For me, that was really the crux of the issue and that’s the important part of the issue.”
Walker, an advertising writer in Wisconsin, came to South Florida to visit his aunts last year. They told him about their mission, the cost of which was quickly adding up, and he suggested they create a campaign to spread the word. Using his marketing background, he created a Go Fund Me account, a Facebook page, and a website. From there, Same-Sex Families for Retirement Equality was born.
“We have to take care of these people, we have to take care of the generation that was before us and do what we can,” said Walker, who is gay as well. “We’ll never be able to repay the debt that they we owe them. We can only try and make some down payments on it.”
The couple’s ultimate goal is to be able to return a pension plan with the Broward County School Board. This month, they are filing a discrimination suit with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the school board. From there, they will find out the direction their case will take them.
“I've always known Carol to have fine eyes for justice and fairness, so I'm not surprised that she's taken on this fight not just for herself but for others,” Hohnecker said of her wife. “I'm proud of her. Our marriage is like any other marriage, where one party desires to take care of the other. I'm proud of her.”
Learn more and donate at RetirementEquality.com.