The Newberg Graphic: PERS cuts will hurt child welfare system

The Oregon Business Council holds too much sway in the halls of the Oregon Legislature in Salem

The Oregon Business Council (OBC) is run by some of the highest paid and powerful business people in our state. People like Mark Ganz, president and chief executive officer of Cambia Health; Andy Bryant, chairman of the board for Intel; Rodrigo Lopez, senior vice president of Comcast; and scores of other executives from the healthcare, financial industry and other powerful sectors. They have a lot of sway in the state capitol.

This month there was another news story about the OBC and how these incredibly powerful people want to further slash retirement benefits for child welfare workers like me and also for teachers, firefighters, public health nurses, local sheriffs and everyone in our state from Heppner to Hillsboro who is counting on PERS.

These powerful corporate interests have not put forth a single plan to address the state’s pension liability that doesn’t include slashing retirement benefits and hurting people.

I have worked in Oregon’s child welfare system as a paralegal for the Department of Human Services for 12 years. PERS benefits have been reduced repeatedly to the limits of the law. Today’s PERS provides a pension that is about 44 percent of salary. Yet OBC wants to slash our retirements even more. Not only will further cuts result in more costly litigation, this constant public attack against us is affecting morale in a workforce already stretched thin.

I would like to invite any member of the OBC to come to my DHS office in Hillsboro and listen to the stories of what it is like to work on the front lines of our state’s opioid and methamphetamine crisis that is ripping families apart. If they came, they would learn that the worst possible thing lawmakers could do is cut benefits for workers, making it even harder to recruit and retain qualified staff who are literally making life and death decisions for children.

Oregon’s child welfare system already has a serious shortage of qualified workers to fill open jobs. As the audit last year from the late Secretary of State Dennis Richardson highlighted, we have caseloads that are three times the recommended level. People are so overwhelmed that we’ve seen an increasing number of stress-induced medical leave, making juggling the cases even more difficult.

This is not only unsustainable, it is dangerous for children. Not only do we have a shortage of caseworkers, we do not have the support staff we need to supervise family visits or schedule meetings for cases, which makes timely family reunification more difficult and puts unnecessary stress on children and parents.

It is already incredibly difficult to attract qualified child welfare employees during this crisis. The constant news coverage about how our benefits are under fire makes it even harder.

Our children deserve the best trained and dedicated people advocating for them, caring for them and watching out for them. People who do this work understand that we are never going to get rich, that we will never receive performance bonuses or double-digit raises. But we do the work because we care about serving our communities and we have traded lower salaries in exchange for a secure retirement.

We have kept our end of the deal. State lawmakers should do the same.

McMinnville resident Andrea Kennedy-Smith is a paralegal for the Oregon Department of Human Services Child Welfare Services division