All her life, Audrey Niecpiel has been a person of action. Some people are talkers, speaking of things they wish they could change; others are doers, fighting the good fight to make those changes take place. Audrey has always been a fighter, seizing every opportunity to make things better.
Even as a teenager, the former Audrey Nowak, was the proactive type. In 1954, the high school senior from Buffalo, N.Y., had earned enough credits to attend school for only half a day. Not content to simply waste the extra time as others her age might, she and a friend applied for jobs at New York Telephone, where she was hired as an operator, working half days while finishing school. She spent three years as an operator before taking time off to have a family along. She and her husband Walter, who worked for General Mills, raised three children together.
After six more years, determined to own a home, Audrey went back to work to realize that dream sooner. She went on to a successful and diverse career at NY Telephone, spending time as an operator, in the plant department in records and payroll. She also worked in the residential and benefits departments before completing her career in 1991 as an order writer.
“I was so proud to be a part of the company when they treated you like family,” Audrey said. “If you worked hard you were rewarded.” She remembers a charm bracelet given to operators for good customer service, with each charm representing a different milestone achieved.
One of her most significant memories was being tasked with changing the directory listings for the University of Buffalo. Since no master list existed, she had to create it from scratch, a massive undertaking that ultimately succeeded and earned an award.
In 1991, Audrey opted to retire early. Her husband, Walter, was also up for retirement and they decided to retire together, travel and babysit their four grandchildren.
Having no regrets about early retirement, Audrey said it is not without its challenges. She shared that when her husband retired, he joked that he didn’t think he would make it to 75, and is now into his 80s. He has been struggling with diabetes for the last 25 years and she helps care for him.
To that end, health care is among Audrey’s biggest concerns. She finds it unfair that companies try to change the rules by forcing retirees to pay into health plans they had been told were already earned and paid for. These unexpected costs wreak havoc with the budgets of seniors living on fixed incomes.
“It’s like they are punishing us for being healthy and living longer” Audrey said. “We made the company what it is today.”
It wasn’t always this way. Among Audrey’s most meaningful experiences at the company was working in the benefits department. She recalled the caring and respectful way retirees were treated.
That changed as the years went by. In 1990, workers went on strike during contract negotiations when the company wanted to cut the Medicare cap in half. Back then, Audrey stood up in the union meeting and told her fellow members to think about their benefits and how they were at risk. At the time, she was brushed off, but boy, did her predictions prove accurate!
“Things fell apart since then, and now what’s happening is criminal,” she said. “After 1991 retirees had to pay into their health insurance. This was an expense they didn’t plan on. We expected to have exactly what we had when we were working.”
Audrey has maintained her interest in fighting for retiree rights. After hearing about the success of ProtectSeniors.org in passing de-risking legislation into law in Connecticut, she wrote to New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, personally asking him to help New York protect its retirees.
“We are fed up with the corporate greed and de-risking,” she said. “If we have to fix this problem state by state, that’s what we are going to do. If my letter gets even one more person to reach out to public officials it’s worth it. We can’t sit back and expect the Association of BellTel Retirees to do all the work. People need to speak up and participate.”
With these concerns in the front of her mind, Audrey Niecpiel is an avid supporter of The Association of BellTel Retirees. As a member, she often shares copies of the newsletters with her old colleagues and keeps them informed about issues. She also appreciates the retiree proxy victories the Association has won, giving them a greater voice in the company.
“I feel so lucky to have them watching my back and sticking up for us,” Audrey said.