Significant storm clouds and signs of distress began gathering for members of the DuPont retiree community around 2016, when the long-time blue-chip chemical and industrial manufacturer froze its pension plan. At the time, it was seen by some as a sign of things still to come.
The E. I. du Pont de Nemours and Company was founded in July 1802 in Wilmington, Delaware, as a gunpowder mill by chemist and industrialist Éleuthère Irénée du Pont. It has been one of America’s top companies ever since.
In 2014, it was the globe’s fourth-largest chemical company, based on market value and eighth-largest based on revenue.
Throughout the 20th century, its research and manufacturing teams, led by legions of its now retirees, introduced some of industry’s leading innovations, including neoprene, nylon, Corian, Teflon, Mylar, Kevlar, Nomex, Tyvek, Lycra and countless others, along with refrigerants, pigmentation for paint colors and so many more important products.
Being recruited for a career at DuPont was a prestigious, often a lifelong commitment. In some cases, loyalty to the company was handed down in families from generation to generation.
Yet over the last three years, its retirees sensed changes in how they were treated. After the pension plan, the company froze and began diminishing retirees’ earned health care and supplemental benefits.
The Day the Earth Shook:
On August 31, 2017, something truly seismic occurred, as America’s two largest chemical companies, DuPont and Dow, merged in a long-planned, massive $130 billion transaction, making rivals into one firm, DowDuPont.
In hindsight, the earlier reductions in retiree benefits made more sense, but it still threw loyal ex-employees for a loop. It also led a group of them from different divisions of the company and from across its national footprint to come together and begin discussing the need to join forces to protect their retirement security.
Before any of the retirees could act, the company made some rapid moves. Within just 18 months the combined firm was split into three stand-alone, publicly traded companies: agriculture seed and crop protection focused Corteva, Dow in the material science space and specialty product focused DuPont.
Most significantly, the pensions of more than 100,000 retirees and much of the combined uncapped environmental legal liabilities of the firms were off-loaded to the new $12 billion agricultural entity, Corteva.
Since taking over the DuPont Pension and Retirement Plan after the spinoff in June of 2019, Corteva did not made any additional voluntary contributions to the underfunded plan in 2019 and as a result of the CARES Act, Corteva is not required to make any contributions in 2020 either. The retirees say this is especially problematic as the Plan is currently underfunded to the tune of at least $3.5 billion and as much as $5.5 billion depending on what discount rate assumptions are used. Former DuPont employees now depend entirely on Corteva for their retirement security.
All of these corporate chess moves led up to the reason for the formation of The Association of DuPont Retirees, a non-profit created to protect and defend retiree’s pension assets.
Today, Charles “Chet” Webb serves as Chairman of the group. Mr. Webb, an engineer who spent 32 years at the company, says he felt a responsibility to represent his fellow retirees when their pensions assets had been outsourced to a new and perhaps undernourished corporation, which 80% of them never worked for.
“I got involved to try to maintain and deliver on the promise that DuPont has made to all of us over our entire career,” Chet said.
Sadly, with the numerous mergers and realignments, the company he and over 100,000 fellow retirees gave their life to, no longer exists.
“Change is inevitable. However, we have had an erosion of our healthcare benefits over time, especially for retirees, and that’s a concern. Going forward, will this entity be able to continue the promise that we were made when we were hired and worked 30, 40, 50 years?” Chet said.
Born into a family of loyal DuPont employees, he worked 32 years for the company, starting with summers during high school and college, working with company divisions across the nation in research, development, and brand management.
Chet credited a former DuPont colleague with giving life to the non-profit group.
Craig Skaggs, who retired after 28 years as a company lobbyist had recognized that the unprecedented corporate asset shuffling, including pensions a
nd massive potential legal liabilities, could imperil retiree’s economic future. He needed to act.
While Mr. Skaggs passed away before the Association could be formed, his quest for retiree protection served as its inspiration.
“DuPont was lagging behind and it just worried my husband so bad,” said Pam Skaggs, who is now the Association’s Secretary and Treasurer. “He started trying to do everything he could to save his retirement, and he was worried about me.”
For most retirees, the pensions and benefits they earned during long careers are a lifeline. “You have no idea how much this meant to him. It’s because he was adamant about DuPont keeping their promise.”
During his fight with pancreatic cancer, Craig remained focused each day on the fight to save what he called, “his retirees.” He knew he could not do it alone.
“We need to grow our organization to have a substantial voice so that we are taken seriously. There is certainly strength in numbers,” said Chet. The organization counts over 8,500 retirees participating in this fight for economic justice.
Fellow retiree Carol Knotts similarly stresses the importance of continuously growing the group’s ability to make a difference.
“It’s important to help us fight for our benefits. It’s right and it’s something we were promised,” said Carol.
With over 20 years at DuPont working in scientific computing and as the first woman in management in a German division of the company, Knotts recognized what was going on, and that is when she decided to get involved.
“They [Dupont] now have less cash to put into the pension for future pension benefits, and by transferring it to Corteva, it means that if Corteva files for bankruptcy, we’re doomed. We have nothing.”
For Pam Skaggs and the other members of the DuPont Retirees leadership, this fight is very personal, given the decades of loyalty they and their families dedicated to the company. “We are all better and stronger, united together.”
To learn more about the group, visit them at www.DuPontRetirees.org