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Ventura County

UFW Pensions Catch Many by Surprise

November 16, 2002|Fred Alvarez | Times Staff Writer

When the card arrived alerting Perfecto Becerra that he might be eligible for a United Farm Workers pension, he said it was "like money from the sky."

The retired Oxnard vegetable picker was a strong union supporter, attending conventions and marching with Cesar Chavez over more than two decades with the UFW. But he didn't realize when he left the fields that he could draw a monthly check merely by contacting the UFW upon retirement.

Now he does. The 68-year-old laborer received a lump sum, retroactive payment of nearly $11,000 on Friday at the UFW's Oxnard office -- nearly the equivalent of a year's pay for the average farm worker.

In addition, he will receive $249 a month for the rest of his life from the pension plan, a hallmark of the benefits won for farm workers in the 1970s.

"I spent all of these years not knowing this money was available," said Becerra, who accepted an oversized check during a ceremony attended by union members. "I think there are a lot people like me who don't know they are owed this money."

Workers such as Becerra are the focus of an ongoing UFW campaign to reach thousands of aging farm workers who could be owed millions in pension funds under the retirement program established by Chavez, the union's founder.

Growers pay anywhere from 5 cents to $1 per hour worked into the plan. The fund, which is the country's first and only pension program for farm workers, is valued at nearly $100 million and has 10,000 members.

But UFW officials estimate there may be as many as 2,000 retired workers who are eligible for benefits but don't know they have money coming.

Earlier this week, a $48,000 check was presented to a Salinas-area farm worker who didn't realize he qualified for a UFW pension. And earlier this year, the union handed a $73,748 check -- its biggest retroactive benefit ever -- to a retired farm worker in the same area.

"My goal is to contact them, or have them contact us, and get them their pension benefits," said Douglas Blaylock, the fund's administrator.

Becerra worked for an Oxnard harvester for nearly 20 years and should have started drawing from the pension fund three years ago, at age 65.

The retired worker said he was going to spend the fruits of his labor on home repairs and providing for his two grandchildren and one on the way.

"It's very nice this happened," he said.

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