Workers see human cost of retirement age hikes

Posted on: March 20th, 2012 by Alexander Zaitchik 3 Comments

In state legislatures across the country, slashing the benefits and pension plans of public sector workers has come into bipartisan fashion. Even in the deep-blue states of California and New York, governors are leading pushes to cut the pensions and benefits packages won by public workers over the decades. The cuts take a variety of forms, including raising the level of employee contributions, lowering payouts, and replacing guaranteed plans with 401(k) accounts.

Another recurring proposal is the raising of retirement ages, which vary across sectors and states. In California, Gov. Jerry Brown has proposed a new retirement age of 67 for most public workers. In New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo had sought a minimum retirement age of 65, up from 62, in the “Tier VI” public pension reform deal announced last week. He ended up settling for 63.

New York police and firefighters — whose jobs are dangerous and physically demanding — were exempted from these reforms. But many jobs in New York and across the country that are now being targeted for higher retirement ages take their own physical toll, and critics argue that forcing these employees to work longer in order to earn retirement benefits will create very real hardships.

On the day the reform plan passed, Cuomo said: ”This bold and transformational pension reform plan is a historic win for New York taxpayers and municipalities that will save more than $80 billion over the next 30 years, while preserving retirement security for public workers. Without this critical reform, New Yorkers would have seen significant tax increases, as well as layoffs to teachers, firefighters and police.”

The American Independent spoke with three New York state and city workers about their jobs, Cuomo’s Tier VI, and what they think went missing in the latest round of the debate over the future of public sector pensions.

Mike Martin, Equipment Operator in Buffalo

“Among my jobs is snow plowing. I get up around 5:00 and during snow start plowing by 7:00. We have some very narrow streets. Sometimes we have to squeeze between parked cars — you have literally inches. In a snowstorm it’s very stressful work. And when you hit a manhole or a pothole, you feel it. When you’re 30 years old, it’s probably not an issue. As the years go on and you’ve done it for 25 years, as I have, it starts to affect you, the weather as well, the cold. Arthritis sets in; you start to feel the stress. Sixty-two is a reasonable retirement age for this kind of work. But to add years for mechanics, schoolteachers, tire-changers on a rig — it gets a lot harder in your 60s. There are aches and pains that develop. We do all our pre-inspection ourselves on the machines. We refuel ourselves, in the middle of the elements. As the years get on, you just don’t have the mobility or flexibility. There is also the increased chance of injury. This should be a big consideration in raising the retirement age. Your injuries and workman’s comp payouts will go up for municipalities.

“Everybody I work with is opposed to the Tier VI proposals. I don’t think Gov. Cuomo realizes what we do — whether it’s a snow-plower, street-cleaner, grass-cutter, front-end loader. In Buffalo, there are 10,000 empty lots that we maintain every year and it’s growing. In the summer, we deal with pollen, ragweed, bees. You don’t know what you’re going to run into when you’re cutting these lots.”

Tom Campany, President of Retired Teachers Association of New York

“The way that these reforms are marketed by people who want to constantly raise the retirement age is great savings by the government. But what about the costs? Down the line, this will make recruiting teachers more difficult. You’re going to see schools filling positions with uncertified people. That’s how they deal with shortages. Nobody will point back to this when quality starts to suffer, but it should be taken into consideration. When I started teaching, there were a lot of shortages, because pay and benefits were not what they are now. This was in 1968, and pay was $5,300 per year. When we signed up, a lot of us never contemplated standing in front of a classroom in our sixties. Nor, if parents thought about it, would they want their kids being educated by people just hanging on.

“A lot of people picture a K-through-12 teacher sitting at a desk; they think it’s a sedentary job that someone can easily do into their 60s. In most cases it’s much more physically demanding than that. Most teachers are on their feet all the time, moving up and down the rows.”

Carmen Flores, clerical associate in the New York City Deptartment of Social Services

“We are understaffed and we work very hard to help people get to a better place. We assist people in navigating child support and other city services. We take pride in the work and we live in the same communities as the people we’re helping. When you sign up, you know it’s going to be hard work, but you look forward to retiring after 25 years. The rise in retirement age won’t affect me … [but] now for new workers it’s 63. The reality is people want to make money or at least have security. The attraction was always a good pension to retire on and benefits. Now they’re going after both. What do you have to look forward to?”

Disclosure: The American Independent News Network has received funding from the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which represents workers affected by the New York pension cuts.

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