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Unions feel betrayed after Senate OKs public employee retirement cuts

Lane Professional Firefighters is one of many unions frustrated with the Oregon Senate, saying cutting the retirement security for firefighters, police officers, teachers, nurses and other public servants is not how they should handle the debt.

Posted: May 24, 2019 7:18 PM
Updated: May 24, 2019 7:20 PM

EUGENE, Ore. -- Employee unions across the state are feeling betrayed after the Oregon Senate approved a short-term pension fix that aims to cut employee retirement benefits.

Teachers, firefighters and social workers are just some of the employees covered by Oregon's Public Employee Retirement System, or PERS, which has racked up more than $25 billion in debt over the years. That's what the state is trying to fix.

The Senate approved Senate Bill 1049 by a 16-to-12 vote Thursday. It essentially refinances the $25 billion in debt incurred from PERS.

It extends the state's repayment period from 20 to 22 years, which is meant to shield employers from an impending interest rate hike in the upcoming years. The measure also redirects 2.5 percent of employee salary toward PERS. That translates to a 7 to 12 percent cut to employees' secondary retirement account, which is a 401(k)-type plan meant to supplement the public pension.

Lane Professional Firefighters is one of many unions frustrated with the Oregon Senate, saying cutting the retirement security for firefighters, police officers, teachers, nurses and other public servants is not how they should handle the debt.

The President of Lane Professional Firefighters, Mike Caven, said those just starting their firefighting careers already have a pension worth up to 30 percent less than their predecessors.

Caven also said that this bill could impact those in senior positions: "A large portion of our firefighters locally are eligible to retire and might do it prematurely because they're worried about their pensions. "

John Larson, the President of the Oregon Education Association, is frustrated too.

"The government seems to think that only one sector of the society should pay for it and that's the public service workers," said Larson. "I think we need to look at it like an Oregon debt and say how do we as a state solve this problem?"

Senator James Manning said voting yes on this bill was difficult for him. He said his vote was based on threats to undo the Student Success Act.

"My vote was not intended ever to hurt PERS recipients, but I'm also dedicated to making sure that our public education is fully funded," said Manning. 

He said he's working to fully fund PERS and to find those avenues at the end of session. 

The bill now heads to the House.

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