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State employees ‘being asked to pay the piper’

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 state Department 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 and Gov. Pat Quinn then signed a $160 billion pension-reform package gutting her pension provisions.

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 have $41,000 less 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 died in August after an 11-year battle with cancer — her biggest regret over the yearslong 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 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 going to create a brain drain. . . . Your most-senior people right now are feeling pressured to leave.”

Robinson said she plans to work through age 66. “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.

“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.