State Retirement Systems See Increases As Legislative Changes Loom

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On Tuesday, Feb. 22, members of the Columbus Education Association joined thousands of other Ohioans at the statehouse to protest Senate Bill 5. The debate over collective bargaining, pension reform and privatization has not only divided Ohioans, it has prompted some long-time public workers to call it a career.(Photo: ColumbusEA (flickr))
On Tuesday, Feb. 22, members of the Columbus Education Association joined thousands of other Ohioans at the statehouse to protest Senate Bill 5. The debate over collective bargaining, pension reform and privatization has not only divided Ohioans, it has prompted some long-time public workers to call it a career.(Photo: ColumbusEA (flickr))

The debate over collective bargaining, pension reform and privatization has not only divided Ohioans, it has prompted some long-time public workers to call it a career. WOSU reports anxiety over the changes is causing a sharp increase in retirements. “I ran scared. I ran scared of privatization,” Charles Ludwig said.

Sixty-six-year-old Ludwig has spent the last 30 years working for Ohio’s prison system, the last 20 at the Grafton Correctional Institution where he worked as both a correctional officer and food services manager.

Ludwig did not want to stop working — he said he can keep up with men half his age. But the Grafton prison is one of several prisons set to be sold to private companies. And Ludwig feared salary and benefit cuts.

“It was easier for me to go out on retirement and get my retirement money from OPERS and deferred [compensation] and my Social Security than stay there,” he said.

Ludwig is among a growing group of public employees at least seriously considering retirement because of looming changes.

The Ohio Public Employees Retirement System has seen a 34 percent increase in retirement applications so far this year compared to the last. And the number of people inquiring about retirement in April was up a staggering 182 percent over last April.

School Employees Retirement System — or SERS — has seen a 24 percent increase in its retirements over last year. And the number of people running their retirement numbers is up by almost a third. “We’re booked for about the next three months on personal counseling sessions and we’ve had to implement group counseling sessions to meet the need,” said Lisa Morris, SERS’ executive director.

Morris attributes some of the increases to retiring Baby Boomers.

“But I think it’s very fair to say that there is a lot of concern and just general anxiety around the legislative climate. What’s going to happen in pension reform; will the legislature do pension reform? Will there be layoffs? Will there be downsizing in the school systems? So I think it’s almost a perfect storm of issues,” she said.

Gov. John Kasich signed into law the contentious Senate Bill 5 which limits bargaining rights for union workers. Opponents are trying to get a repeal vote on November’s ballot.

Imminent pension reform is prompting the retirement surge. Lawmakers are considering changing the cost of living adjustment retirees receive. Right now retirees get a flat three percent increase every year. But officials want the increase to float with the inflation rate — which lately has been less than three percent. Morris said this has many school employees — like union bus drivers and cafeteria workers — are worried. They already make some of the lowest public employee wages. And Morris says many of them feel as though they’ve been vilified in recent months — causing some to consider retirement.

“Public employees used to be described as public servants. Now they’re portrayed as feeding at the trough. And that’s the way our members feel, that they somehow are getting something that they don’t deserve. And the cause for economic distress in the state,” Morris said.

Seventy-year-old Betty Knief worked as head cook at Triad Elementary School in Champaign County for 39 years. She finalized her retirement yesterday. Knief said her decision was directly related to Senate Bill 5 — even though it may be repealed.

“Forced out to do what you’re not ready to do, but it’s the best thing for you,” Knief said.

Carol Bowshier is chief of staff for the Ohio Civil Service Employees Association. Bowshier agreed there are a number of factors contributing to the increases in public worker retirements, but the union official said it has more to do with the proposed state budget and SB 5.

“If I’m a corrections officer and I know, for example, that people are going to come after the wage and benefit package I have under Senate Bill 5? Do I want to continue to risk my life everyday and work in the conditions I work in? Or is it time for me to look at my retirement options and take something that’s a little less taxing,” Bowshier said.

Bowshier’s colleague, Sally Meckling, agreed.

“It’s going to mean massive job loss. And so I think there are employees, you know, they’re thinking to themselves, you know I need to get out while the getting’s good,” Meckling said.

OPERS and SERS are not the only retirement systems to experience increases. The state teacher retirement system has seen a 14 percent increase.

The states police and fire pension and state troopers pension have not seen a significant increase in retirements.

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