Retired Teacher Takes on WEP/GPO
Retired teacher Winifred Tappan waged a grueling, but ultimately successful, 8-year struggle with the Social Security Administration. Now that her fight is over, Tappan has written a book—Grappling With Government Abuse: My Social Security Nightmare—about her experience.
By Edward Graham
For eight years, Winifred Tappan—an 87-year-old retired special education teacher living in Montrose, Colo.—was stuck in a perpetual nightmare because of the Social Security Administration (SSA). Now that her fight is over, Tappan has recorded her experiences in Grappling
with Government Abuse: My Social Security Nightmare—a book about her dealings with the Windfall Elimination Provision (WEP) and Government Pension Offset (GPO).
“It was very stressful,” Tappan says.
“I got so angry. I describe this in my book. It felt like I was wrestling with a huge monstrous machine that automatically, and not always correctly, responded with ‘Appeal denied!’”
Tappan was first introduced to the horrors of WEP/GPO during a routine visit to her local Social Security office in the spring of 2004. For 11 years, Tappan had been receiving her benefits with few issues. But that all changed the instant a Social Security representative sat across from her and said that for 10 years Tappan had been receiving too much money. Tappan was told that she had to pay back the overpayment—$15,909.60.
“I was in complete shock,” Tappan says.
Tappan’s home state of Colorado is one of a handful of states that don’t include a person’s pension plan in payments to Social Security. As a result, the government takes approximately 40 percent of a person’s pension from their monthly Social Security payment. The process is known as the Windfall Elimination Provision.
Because Tappan was a teacher who received her pension from the government, she was also subjected to the Government Pension Offset, which allowed for her Social Security benefits to be reduced by two-thirds of the amount of her government pension. Public employees such as educators and firefighters in Alaska, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Illinois, Louisiana, Maine, Massachusetts, Missouri, Nevada, Ohio, Texas, and certain local governments in Georgia, Kentucky and Rhode Island are affected by WEP/GPO.
“The amount of people affected by this is astronomical,” Tappan says. “I really couldn’t believe the amount of money that was involved.”
Tappan taught for several years in West Virginia and New Mexico before moving to Colorado. Unknowingly, Tappan lost 40 percent of her Social Security benefits and a good share of her deceased husband’s benefits the moment she became a resident of the state—or at least she was supposed to.
When she had her pre-retirement interview with the SSA, the representative she spoke with made a note of her moves over the years. But his report went unheeded, and for 11 years Tappan unknowingly received her full benefits in error. Once the SSA finally noticed, they wanted her to pay back the overpaid amount—every single cent of their mistake.
“That was two whole years’ income for me,” says Tappan, who as a retiree relied on her benefits to live.
Almost immediately after leaving the Social Security office, Tappan got on the phone with her state Association, the Colorado Education Association (CEA), where she was a lifetime member.
“I called the CEA office and asked if they could help me,” says Tappan. “They called back and said that they were furnishing an attorney and that she would be contacting me.”
With the CEA’s attorney accompanying her, Tappan returned to the Social Security office to find out what records they had on file. As it turned out, they had lost or misplaced most of her records over the years. That still didn’t matter to the SSA, which was adamant that Tappan still owed them the total amount. At that moment, Tappan began to keep meticulous records of her ordeal, since it was obvious that the SSA could not.
For the next eight years, Tappan fought with the SSA. Her CEA attorneys filed numerous appeals and argued on her behalf in court. Tappan reached out to her local congressman, John Salazar, who wrote letters on her behalf and assigned one of his staffers to her case. When Salazar lost reelection in 2010, Sen. Michael Bennet’s office picked up Tappan’s case.
“In one response from SSA’s main office, after Sen. Bennet took over my case, they actually referred to one of my requests for information as being stamped ‘congressional interest,’” Tappan says.
After many appeals and judicial hearings, Tappan’s ordeal finally came to an auspicious ending. But while Tappan was told she did not have to pay back the overpayment, there was little joy in the ruling.
“I feel like I was robed of eight years of my life,” she says. “It was hanging over my head for such a long time.”
Tappan hopes her book will help others who are forced to pay back overpayments to the SSA because of WEP/GPO—something that happens at an alarming frequency. Tappan urges those who find themselves in a similar predicament to contact their state Association, and their congressman or senators, for help.
Most importantly, Tappan advises, never give up. “Appeal, appeal, appeal, appeal, and appeal again,” Tappan says at the end of her book. “It may take a long time, but you can win!”
Click here for more information on Tappan’s book and experiences.