Pension pinch: Elderly Greeks stand on line to get cash

Staff Writer
Columbus CEO

ATHENS, Greece (AP) — Don't mention the golden years to Michaelis Kotaras. Not after the 78-year-old got up early Wednesday to stand in line, twice, outside the National Bank of Greece for the privilege of going inside to withdraw 120 euros ($134,) less than a quarter of his monthly pension.

He emerged with the cash, but without any certainty about when (or whether) he will be able to access the rest of his payment, which has been repeatedly slashed as Greece imposed austerity upon austerity. Since he doesn't have a bank card, he can't use the ATMs that are the only source of limited cash for most Greeks this week after the country imposed capital controls to prevent a run on banks.

"I'm furious," the retired builder said. "Before these new controls, my wife and I could live easily. Now I'm anxious about money. And Europe wants to cut my pension still more. I am sure that we are dead as a country."

He started off angry, but soon began to cry — not because of financial woes, but because his treasured Sunday family lunches, a hallowed Greek tradition, have turned into shouting matches between him and his children over the left-wing Syriza government's policy.

Greece's 5-year crisis has deepened this week after it failed to repay 1.6 billion euros to the International Monetary Fund. It has called a referendum Sunday on whether to accept the austerity package demanded by its creditors in exchange for more aid.

The nation's 2.6 million pensioners have been hit particularly hard. Since many retirees like Kotaras lack bank cards, the capital controls — which included the closure of all banks — cut them off entirely from their funds until special bank sessions beginning Wednesday gave them partial access.

Even then, they had to stand in line to get numbers that allowed them to stand in line a second time to be admitted to the bank lobbies. Police stood guard, and bank officials sometimes helped those using walkers or wheelchairs to get in and out more quickly.

Then came yet another hurdle: Banks announced hours before they reopened that customers would be served alphabetically. That led to confusion at the roughly 1,000 branches that opened, with many retirees waiting for hours only to be told they would have to come back Thursday or Friday.

Others were told their pensions had not yet been deposited and they would have to return once they have been.

Many who made it through said they were getting money "just in case," — a catchall phrase reflecting a strong shared sense that the Greek financial roller coaster has not yet come to a halt.

"The way they treat us is very bad," said 71-year-old Georgios Petropoulos. "I'm a citizen. I worked for 48 years. I want to take my pension whenever I want. Instead I got 120 euros and they said I might get another 120 euros next week — perhaps."

It is the uncertainty that is galling many retired Greeks who had counted on secure pensions to keep them in rent, groceries and a few of life's pleasures in their retirement years.

Creditors are demanding a toughening up of Greece's formerly generous pension system, which remains a major financial burden for the government even after earlier Greek administrations agreed to substantial reductions in payments.

Many pensioners can pay just enough of their electric bills to avoid having their service cut, said Eleni Loukissa, 64, who retired from a dental office. She has a bank card, allowing her more access to money than some others, but is still very worried.

She goes to the cash machine every morning as soon as she wakes up to withdraw 60 euros, the maximum allowed. She is stockpiling the cash in her apartment in the northern suburb Agia Paraskevi.

"I don't know what will happen tomorrow, so instead of having coffee with my friends I go to the ATM," she said. "Everyone waiting in line is angry."

Her cash machine has run out of 20-euro bills, so instead of getting three 20s each morning, she gets a single 50.

Loukissa said she had expected her retirement to be "calm and beautiful," but instead she and her friends are consumed by fear.

"I'm very depressed," she said. "Normally I'm a very positive person and I don't want fear to get the better of me. I'm trying not to deal with people who are more depressed than me. I try not to watch TV news because their mood is that the catastrophe is already here and that we are done."