MONTROSE—(February 4, 2014) She has led a very full life—as a teacher at Cedaredge High School, Winnifred Tappan worked with special education students for years before moving to Montrose. Earlier, as the wife of a Presbyterian Minister for 20 years, she had earned a Bachelor’s degree at age 50 and went on to earn a Masters, arriving in Cedaredge after stints teaching in both West Virginia and New Mexico.
Yet at an age when many feel the need to slow down, Tappan has launched yet another career—as an author and activist.
“I will be 88 in February,” said Tappan. “But if anyone has a problem, I am still trying to solve it.”
It was in 2004 that Tappan, a member of the teachers’ union, found herself immersed in a very personal Social Security nightmare.
“Social Security informed me that they had overpaid me,” she said, “and that I had to pay back $25,000.”
Tappan blames the extremely complicated system of benefits calculation, the Government Pension Offset (GPO) and something called the Windfall Elimination Provision (WEP).
“When Social Security applies these complex laws to peoples’ benefits, they often make mistakes, a lot of mistakes,” Tappan now tells other seniors, in a presentation she has prepared. She has also written a book about her experience, Grappling with Government Abuse: My Social Security Nightmare. Her personal nightmare has become a source of support for other seniors struggling with the same issue, and Tappan has been featured in articles by the National Education Association.
Under the WEP, Social Security takes 40 percent of a public servant’s pension, Tappan said, and the larger the pension, the bigger the chunk. The GPO, which concerns benefits from a deceased spouse, takes roughly 2/3 of a pension out of an individual’s Social Security benefits, she said.
She finds herself very, very busy these days—and a source of inspiration for other retired public servants across the nation.
“This is a very widespread problem,” Tappan said. “The laws are so complicated, and Social Security is never wrong. To me, the whole process they go through to figure benefits is so complex, it is the reason they make so many mistakes. A lady called me from Illinois last week—her husband had died in July and she went to Social Security to report his death. They took her into a backroom and told her they had overpaid her for 11 years, and overpaid her children. She was a school nurse, and now she owes $49,000.
“Of course, the fact that it is your money to begin with has no bearing.”
In the case of her own spouse, Tappan said Social Security took two thirds of survivor benefits though she was entitled to half.
“This affects police and firemen too,” she explained, “and anyone who has a state pension.”
Under the WEP and GPO, union members struggling with this issue can obtain representation through their union, she added.
“Go to them and seek legal help,” she said. “My local education association furnished me with a lawyer—a very good one. I wrote to my Congressman, who was John Salazar at the time, and he assigned a staffer to work with me. He wrote letters. I advise going to your congressperson, as they have an office set up to handle problems with Social Security.
It was not easy to endure the process, which required extensive documentation.
“At one point, the lawyer asked me why I had so many shoes,” she said. “But my feet had gotten one size larger with age, and I needed all new pairs. It burned me up, but I had to write it down.”
And in the end?
“I didn’t have to pay a dime,” she said.
A bill to repeal the WEP had been mired in committees, and current Senator Michael Bennett does not advocate its repeal, Tappan noted.
“I received a letter from his office, and they don’t even mention the money they have wasted overpaying people,” Tappan said. “My point is that, in light of the fact that these overpayments are so widespread for victims, and given the cost to Social Security to recover the overpayments, it would seem to make sense to repeal the laws that caused this problem in the first place.”
Tappan, who has also written a book on Lactose Intolerance, shares her information and her work with others through her Facebook and web sites.
“I send lots of emails,” she said. “Any information that I come across the might be useful, I send out.
“My goal in all of this is threefold: get the information and help to anyone who needs it; get congressmen involved in helping their constituents deal with these massive mistakes…and increase public understanding and thus pressure on Congress to repeal these laws.”
Though she finds herself very, very busy these days—in addition to her advocacy work she sits on the Montrose Pavilion Senior Center committee and works as an editor for the local branch of the AARP—Tappan also hopes to continue her work as a writer by chronicling the lives of other seniors.
It’s not about earning money, but about giving back—something Tappan has emphasized throughout her life.
“I borrowed money to publish my books, and I would not feel right about profiting,” she said. “Also, I don’t want Social Security to come after me.”