The Oregonian: Opinion: Threatened PERS cuts affect teachers, firefighters and public workers

By Lindsay Dance, Andrea Kennedy-Smith and Brandon Silence

Dance is a Spanish teacher in the Beaverton School District, Kennedy-Smith is a child welfare paralegal for the Oregon Department of Human Services, and Silence is a Salem firefighter.

There is nothing new in the proposals to cut public employee retirements that were released with a public-relations push last month. For years our benefits have been treated as a political football and every legislative session we are forced to explain what the impact would be to ourselves and our families if the business groups pushing these ideas were to ever be successful.

We went into public service because we believe in giving back to our communities, taking responsibility for the education and well-being of children and protecting people and property from harm. Now our retirements are at risk because powerful special interests are using short-term thinking and fuzzy math.

Here is the reality: more than 60 percent of the people working today receive the lowest level of benefits in the Public Employees Retirement System. Public workers hired after 2003 receive a much smaller pension than the generous plans offered to previous employees. These newer workers are not the ones driving the unfunded liability that is causing so much concern. Yet they are the ones whose benefits are being targeted.

The 2008 recession created another problem ­– the state pension fund suffered investment losses along with many other retirement accounts. Now the state has to make up those investment losses. In 2013, the state again cut retirement benefits to help make up for that liability. The average PERS beneficiary who retired in 2017 received a retirement benefit that replaced 44 percent of their salaries. From 1990 to 2017, the average public employee pension benefit at the time of retirement is about $2,400 per month.

Further cutting our benefits will not solve the problem of the debt for the unfunded liability because those extra costs mostly come from people already retired, not from us. The Oregon Supreme Court has spoken: Benefits that have already been earned cannot be cut for retirees, people who are inactive, or working people.

The central proposal from the corporate special interests to address PERS is the same one that failed to advance in the 2017 legislative session because of the deep cuts it would have made to retirement benefits. It would have decimated our retirement accounts. Employees testified about losing up to 75 percent of their retirement accounts and deep reductions to pensions based on actuarial analyses calculated for them.

Not only are these reductions unfair and potentially illegal, they will certainly result in further court challenges. They will also create a crisis in Oregon’s public workforce. Oregon’s child welfare system has a serious shortage of qualified workers to fill open jobs with caseloads three times the recommended level. There are teacher shortages in central Oregon. And 30 percent of firefighters and all public workers are eligible to retire today. If they see benefit reductions looming, they will take those retirements. We simply cannot afford to have high turnover in essential public services.

The bottom line is that we were promised these retirement benefits for our service to the public and a deal is a deal. People like us should not have that agreement broken as we approach our golden years.