CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Former Wachovia employees who are on long-term disability leave will be formally terminated at the end of the year, meaning they will lose access to the company s subsidized health care program.

The changes come as Wells Fargo, which bought the Charlotte bank during the 2008 financial crisis, moves those workers onto its own, stricter policy.

While Wachovia employees were allowed to access the bank s health benefits more or less indefinitely while on long-term disability leave, Wells Fargo gives its workers 24 months.

Employees on long-term disability from Wachovia when the bank was acquired received letters over the summer saying they would be terminated Dec. 31, according to a document obtained by the Observer.

Wells Fargo spokeswoman Bridget Braxton said these workers were first notified of the change in October 2010. We really wanted to give people as much time as we possibly could, she said.

Former Wachovia employees in this situation won t be terminated if they are still working with Wells on a return to work. Terminated employees are eligible to be rehired in the future.

Some of the employees will be eligible for the bank s retiree health insurance plan. Medicare will cover many others.

Those who are terminated will see various lag times, depending on their circumstances, before government benefits such as Medicare kick in. Meanwhile, those employees can get their benefits through COBRA, which carries a much higher cost.

After termination, long-term disability payments will continue until Social Security kicks in, or the individual returns to employment.

For many of the people affected this will be devastating, and result in the total loss of access to health care and other benefits, said one Charlotte man affected by the change.

Wells Fargo has trimmed its spending on employee benefits over the past three years, according to securities filings. The bank spent $4.3 billion on benefits in 2011, down from $4.7 billion the year before. Salary spending increased over that time period.

But human resources consultants say Wells Fargo s policy remains more generous than is typical in corporate America. Though disability and medical leave are highly regulated, the bank still keeps employees eligible for health benefits longer than many companies.

Usually, companies will move employees to COBRA after they ve exhausted the 12 weeks mandated by the Family and Medical Leave Act, said Sander VanderWerf, New York-based vice president at human resources consulting firm Aon Hewitt. More generous companies will keep employees eligible for their health insurance for a year.

Most companies will formally terminate the employee once the determination has been made that he or she will likely not be coming back to work, VanderWerf said.

Wachovia, which allowed employees to keep health insurance until there was a lapse in payment or long-term disability payments ceased, was well outside the norm.

That s almost unheard of, said Paul Hilton, a South Carolina-based human resources consultant. That s extraordinarily generous.

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