In late March, the United Federation of Teachers’ Retired Teachers Chapter and the Retiree Social Services Department began an outreach program to determine how its retirees were doing during the coronavirus pandemic. The UFT has thousands of retired members in Florida, so the union launched its program there with plans to reach out to retirees in other states soon.
“The reaction has been overwhelmingly positive,” says Lynne Winderbaum, who is coordinating calls in Hillsborough, Pinellas and Polk counties. Winderbaum estimates she has spoken to 400 retirees in the last two months. “When they pick up, they may be tentative at first but when they realize it’s someone from the union, they are happy that we are checking in on them and concerned about them.”
Coordinators like Winderbaum and other volunteers began their calls with older retirees, ages 85 and up and gradually moved to younger retirees. The callers talk to retirees and ask a few questions that help them to categorize the retirees as “green” (doing well), “amber” (experiencing some anxiety) or “red” (in crisis).
“Most of the people we talk to are with families or friends and fall into the green category,” says Donesa Jackson, who coordinates calls in the Orlando area. “Some people just want someone to talk to, and they are happy to know that the union would call them,” says Jackson,
adding that the calls provide a fringe benefit. “The members are happily surprised to hear from the union; it means a lot to them, and it gives us a closer relationship with members.”
If callers talk with retirees who need their help, they have resources readily available and are able to help them to varying degrees. “It’s important for us to do this because we really do want to make sure everyone is OK; and if they are not, we know who to refer them to,” says Winderbaum.
The callers are also helping retirees who normally would not have reached out to the union.
“While we have them on the phone, people are asking questions that are union related,” says Patti Vitucci, who is coordinating calls on the East Coast of Florida. Vitucci says she has helped widows and widowers with pension issues as well as people who need help getting food or taking medications. The conversations also touch on how the retirees are using technology like Zoom and FaceTime to connect with one another. “I’ve heard about people’s children and grandchildren, and I also get to hear the creative ways that people are coping,” she says. “I’m not sure who is enjoying the calls more,” says Vitucci. “It’s rewarding on both ends.”
Another perk from the outreach program has been that people are asking how they can participate in the union. “They want to be on our mailing list and stay in touch,” says Winderbaum. The callers have also been able to recruit volunteers who want to make phone calls as well.
Winderbaum recruited Lorraine Mulrane to volunteer. Mulrane thought it was a great idea to keep in touch with members. “I feel like this is one of the best things that the union has done,” says Mulrane, who describes herself as an active retiree who volunteers for phone banks and attends retiree chapter meetings. “It’s uplifting,” she says, adding that the union has always been there for her, and it’s been a good way to stay connected.
Mulrane was able to provide help for a retiree who had lost her best friend and her spouse to COVID-19. “She was overwhelmed, and we were able to go beyond asking questions like whether she needed help with groceries to really help her during this time.”
Mulrane was also able to reconnect with a friend and colleague she had lost contact with several years ago. “I recognized the last name on the call list,” she says. They exchanged phone numbers; and when things get better, they plan to meet. “People don’t realize how much the union is there for them, especially in this time when people are isolated. We can’t have physical contact, but we can connect with our voices.”