Government workers grapple with pension plan changes
BY Maudlyne ihejirika Staff Reporter December 6, 2013 8:52PM
Ruby Robinson and her son John both work for the Illinois Department of Employment Security and neither of them are very happy with the recent pension deal approved in Springfield. | Jon Langham/For Sun-Times Media
Updated: January 9, 2014 6:34AM
In her mid-20s, Ruby Robinson applied for what many have long called the “good” jobs, government work offering long-term stability and great benefits.
She’s now worked for the Ill. Dept. of Employment Security for 38 years.
“My vision for myself was to retire at age 60,” said Robinson, 63, of Aurora.
She put in her time, made her pension contributions, saw a compounded annual 3 percent cost of living adjustment (COLA) enacted, and felt secure in the state’s constitutional guarantee that her pension could never be “diminished or impaired.”
That all changed last week when the Legislature passed a $160 billion pension-reform package gutting her pension provisions that was quickly signed Thursday by Gov. Quinn.
With curtailed COLA increases, if Robinson were to retire today, her $48,000 annual pension would be $12,000 less in five years, than it would have grown to under current provisions. In 10 years, she would lose $41,000 in increases; over 20 years, $158,000.
“We worked hard under the promise we’d get certain benefits and thought we were protected by the Illinois Constitution,” said an angry Robinson.
“Now our lawmakers can just say that is not the case?”
Robinson had hoped to be at home caring for her husband, who succumbed in August to an 11-year battle with cancer — her biggest regret over the years-long pension fix debacle.
Her son, John, Jr., 37, also works for IDES — a program rep for five years.
He is among the state’s younger public sector employees who will see deeper long-term pension cuts than those closer to retirement under a law capping pensionable salaries and hiking retirement ages.
“We’re being asked to pay the piper for a situation we weren’t even a part of,” he says. Lengthy litigation looms from labor unions vowing to challenge its constitutionality.
Also looming are decisions for retirable state workers, suburban and downstate teachers and university employees affected by the law that takes effect in June.
“There are people who are looking at this, and saying, ‘Wow, I had no intent to retire, but I may lose a lot of money if I retire later,’” said Illinois Federation of Teachers President Dan Montgomery. “Because the effect on retirees is different than on active members, we could see a rush for the exit as people decide they want to leave by June.”
Nearly a half million workers covered by the Teachers’ Retirement System (TRS), State Universities Retirement System (SURS), State Employees’ Retirement System (SERS) and their dependents are affected. The pensions cover workers from cafeteria lady to teacher, clerk to agency head.
The three systems include 190,707 retired workers and 296,005 active members. The law is to stem the state’s out-of-control pension debt by slowing the growth of future annuities.
“There’s definitely that incentive to get out before June,” said AFSCME Council 31 spokesman Anders Lindall. That union represents the largest bloc of state workers.
“It’s a double-edged sword because it’s going to create a brain drain. Whether you’re talking about state government, universities or public school teachers, your most senior people right now are feeling pressured to leave,” he posited.
The law also impacts the General Assembly Retirement System (GARS,) but not the Judges’ Retirement System (JRS). It’s expected to save $160 billion over 30 years and reduce the state’s annual pension payments by as much as $1.5 billion.
The unions have argued that after years of chronically underfunding pensions, lawmakers seek to fix Illinois’ pension crisis on the backs of public workers.
TRS and SURS participants do not receive Social Security. Average pension for the former is $48,216; for the latter, $35,880. SERS participants’ Social Security benefits are offset by their state pensions — that average pension, $36,672.
“While I and a whole lot of other people were afraid to retire, a lot of others were afraid to stay, so we had a huge rush of people retiring last May,” recalled Robinson, who now plans to work through age 66.
“I missed out on being at home with my husband as he was dying. I was cheated of that because the state couldn’t make a decision to do the right thing, to give us what’s rightfully ours,” she said through tears.