Teachers reflect on state worker pension reform

Many states are cutting back on benefits promised to public employees, sparking a political debate.

Ray Pultinas teaches English at Dewitt Clinton High School in the Bronx.

Bethany Weisberger has taught in New York City for nine years.

Kai Ryssdal: As if the economics of the federal deficit weren't enough, the states now have $1 trillion problem of their own. That's the shortfall that state-run retirement systems are facing over the next 30 years. Some, including New York, where we are today, are making changes to those pension plans to fill the funding gap. Which has public workers claiming the states are breaking a trillion-dollar promise.

From the Wealth and Poverty Desk, Marketplace's David Gura reports on the changes facing one group of middle-class Americans and why benefits for public workers have become so political.

David Gura: English teacher Ray Pultinas has taught at a big high school in the Bronx for 22 years now, and he says he's got three more left.

Ray Pultinas: I'm ready to retire. Not that I'm talking about it all the time, but I'm... I feel like I've done my time.

After college, Pultinas tried acting, but that didn't work out. Teaching, he says, was a way to contribute to society. Pultinas teaches an elective class on activism, and he started a community garden at Dewitt Clinton High School. But over the years his job has changed. He's trying to teach American literature to students who are reading at five, sometimes six grade levels below where they should be, and his school is way overcrowded.

Pultinas: It's not the way high school used to be.

When Pultinas retires early at 55, he'll get what is called a defined-benefit pension -- a check in the mail every month for the rest of his life. That's what he signed up for.

Pultinas: We didn't have the expectation of getting a high salary, but we did have the expectation of having a stable job.

And a secure retirement. He makes just over $90,000 a year. He and his wife rent an apartment in a middle-class neighborhood in the Bronx. They have two kids. Still Pultinas says, in New York City, they're living paycheck to paycheck, and he's looking forward to moving somewhere with a lower cost of living.

For decades, public sector jobs, like teaching, were considered "good jobs." But they don't guarantee the kind of stability they used to. Lee Adler teaches at Cornell University's School of Industrial and Labor Relations, and he says pension reform has raised a big question.

Lee Adler: To whom should the government be responsible? To its employees? To its citizens?

The private sector began to answer that question years ago. Responsibility has shifted away from employers. These days, most workers in the private sector won't get the kind of retirement benefits Ray will. They're putting money in 401(K)s. When it comes to retirement, Adler says, public sector workers are getting a lot less sympathy.

Adler: I think average folks -- especially folks that aren't in unions, citizens that aren't in unions -- have every right to ask and wonder about this whole process.

Many state-run retirement systems have been underfunded, but Adler says New York's is not one of them. It's actually in pretty good shape. But many politicians, including New York's Democratic governor, ran on a platform of pension reform, on "fiscal responsibility."

So the debate over pension reform in New York state was political and acrimonious. It pitted lawmakers against each other -- and against unions. And high school teacher Ray Pultinas says that fight changed how public sector workers are perceived here.

Pultinas: We're looked upon as kind of people who are somehow abusing the system.

If he were starting his teaching career today, Pultinas would have to contribute more money to his retirement plan, and he'd have to retire years later.

The unions and other opponents of pension reform promise to use their influence in the next election. They argue it's not their fault states mismanaged retirement systems, and they're worried it is going to get harder for the public sector to attract top talent. And to keep it.

Bethany Weisberger teaches environmental science at Brooklyn Community Arts and Media High School. She says she got a job with the New York City Department of Education right after college.

Bethany Weisberger: Yeah, I guess I didn't expect that I would be a teacher, and I definitely didn't expect that I would still be a teacher.

In New York City, some 50 percent of teachers quit after five years. Weisberger has been teaching for nine now. She says that while good benefits aren't the only reason she's stuck with the job, it's one of them. And Weisberger says that if she stays in the profession, she deserves a pension.

Weisberger: I don't know if it's a reward, but we should support teachers, or any sort of service job. I mean, it's a public school. It's a public service.

And so for Weisberger, the debate over pension reform isn't just about the government, keeping its promises to teachers like her. It's about the value of public sector workers.

Ryssdal: David Gura's in the studio with me out here in New York City. Hey David.

Gura: Hey Kai.

Ryssdal: So you said New York state's pension fund is actually doing all right?

Gura: Yeah so the Pew Center on the States has actually crunched the data and when you look ahead 30 years, New York state is actually 101 percent funded. So much better than other states like West Virginia or Illinois, which are just over half funded. New York State's actually in pretty good shape.

Ryssdal: 101 percent, more than they need?

Gura: Right. So that's led some people to say maybe this latest round of pension reforms in New York state was more politically motivated than fiscally motivated.

Ryssdal: What was it, though, that New York did that got it to be in such a good place and other states maybe didn't?

Gura: Basically when it made promises to its workers, it made provisions in the budget to pay for them or to pay for them in the future. Other states didn't do that. You'll remember in the '90s we had some pretty good times, the markets were doing well. Many states and municipalities just stopped contributing to these plans altogether. Obviously events intervened and now they're having to pay for it.

Ryssdal: Right. What happens now then? If they haven't made the preparations and they've got hundreds of thousands of people?

Gura: Well, it varies state by state. Some states are able to make really big changes. Other states can make smaller ones, maybe raising the retirement age for new employees. This is something that states are going to be wrestling with over these next couple of years because if they don't, the situation's only going to get worse and worse, Kai.

Ryssdal: Yeah. David Gura and pension reform. David, thanks a lot.

Gura: Thanks Kai.

About the author

David Gura is a reporter for Marketplace, based in the Washington, D.C. bureau.

Ray Pultinas teaches English at Dewitt Clinton High School in the Bronx.

Bethany Weisberger has taught in New York City for nine years.

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Teacher pay and benefits are way out of line. People really can get payed more than their worth if their lucky. I love hearing the "I do this because I love to teach" B.S. I feel we spend way too much money on teacher salaries for K-12 for the results we get. When my nephew went back to school last year, his middle school sent him a list of school supplies for parents to purchase that was like $200...I thought "What? Don't tell me all that property tax money is going to pay and benefits!!!" Oh, wait. It is. 30 years ago teachers could not qualify to buy luxury automobiles like Mercedes and BMW. Now, they can. Also, I find it hard to believe that while technology has lowered the cost everywhere else, in education and health care it has not. Now, why is that? Greed or corruption, perhaps? And let's get real. Other than basic reading, writing, and mathematics, what does one really gain from the experience? I learned more at the University.

For those defending the public school system and do not see that is is broken, please watch the movie, Waiting for 'Superman'. The movie is as eye opening to public education as Al Gore's Inconvenient Truth was to the environment. We cannot afford to keep tying to make teachers and unions lives better at the expense of our children.

It isn't about "keeping promises", it's about meeting contractual obligations, big difference.


The group fighting the Colorado Legislature’s theft of contracted pension benefits (saveperacola.com) posted a Colorado Court of Appeals schedule on their website today (as follows):

“We have received notice of the following scheduled dates for the lawsuit:

4/23/12 – Appellees to Supplement Record
5/29/12 – Appellee’s Answering Brief
6/12/12 – Appellant’s Reply Brief

PERA and the State of Colorado are the appellees. Gary R. Justus et al are the appellants.”

Saveperacola also posted a request for help from Colorado PERA members, retirees and any others who support the rule of law in the United States. Saveperacola is raising funds for attorney fees to combat the theft of retirement benefits that were earned by PERA members over decades.

Are you a PERA member or retiree? Have you paid into PERA for many years? Do you expect the Colorado Legislature and Colorado PERA to honor their contractual obligations to you?
Well, your expectations are not grounded in reality.

It is pathetic, but the Colorado Legislature and Colorado PERA will not honor their legal commitments to you short of a court order. That has become quite clear during Colorado PERA’s political, legal and lobbying campaigns.

If Colorado PERA members and retirees do not act, our interests will be brushed aside.

In a nutshell, the Colorado Legislature and Colorado PERA are trying to avoid their debts to public employees. The Colorado Legislature has the ability to “define” a pension “crisis” into existence and then attempt to use that “crisis” to justify the breach of pension contracts.

The Legislature can create a funding “crisis” by skipping its annual required contributions to the PERA trust funds. For a decade the Colorado Legislature has done just that. It has ignored the level of contributions that it must make every year to the PERA pension in order keep it financially sound. This level of annual contributions (called the ARC) is determined each year by Colorado PERA’s actuaries. To date, the skipped contributions exceed $3.5 billion. Just this week the Colorado Legislature is skipping in annual required pension contributions in order to provide $100 million in discretionary tax relief.

Having ignored its obligations for years, the Legislature would like to compensate for its negligence by essentially stealing money from Colorado PERA members and retirees.

The Colorado Legislature and Colorado PERA are also trying to use the volatility of investment markets to justify their breach of contracts. Remember that Colorado PERA members and retirees are members of a defined benefit plan. They do not bear any “market risk.” In a defined benefit pension, “market risk” is borne by the sponsors of the plan, that is, the State of Colorado and Colorado local governments. The Colorado Legislature and Colorado PERA want to retroactively change the terms of our statutory pension contract.

Here’s a quote from the new post on the saveperaacola website:

“Remember, the bottom line here is that unless we prevail in this lawsuit, PERA is off the hook for keeping the promises it made to every member and retiree.”

What can you do? Go to the saveperacola.com website, click on the “Support” tab, and send them a contribution. Call or e-mail every PERA member and retiree you know and ask them send support. Call your public employee union representatives and ask them how they can stand idly by while the state attempts to breach its contracts with public employees. Their public sector union colleagues across the country are aggressively defending the pension rights of their members.

To follow developments in the Colorado pension theft lawsuit sign up as a Friend of Save Pera Cola on Facebook.

Have your friends sign up as Friends of Save Pera Cola. Copy this post and e-mail it to PERA members and retirees you know.

A) Teachers who elect to retire at 55 take a significant cut in their pension. They do not get a full pension. They re-enter the workforce out of financial necessity, often with unique insight and experience.

B) Teachers cannot live comfortably on their pension contributions. Every teacher I know puts away additional retirement savings.

I left my high paying corporate job to become a teacher. I went through an excellent graduate program and have found my life as a teacher to be very rewarding. The work is challenging. Though not lavish, the pay and benefits are decent. The poor consider me rich and the rich consider me poor. I think I am lucky but I also think that everyone deserves rewarding work and a living wage. It disappoints me to hear hard working people pitted against each other in this conversation. Don't we all deserve a decent living wage, a means to plan for a financial future and respect for our positive contributions to society? Why hate teachers? Why can't they be an example to uphold for how the 99% gets treated?

Cry me a river teacher that gets 90K, retires at 55 AND gets a retirement paycheck for the rest of his life. My wife and I, both educated, work full time, both take home hours of work in order to meet deadlines and to make up for reduced staff(which we don't get paid extra to do), each gets paid less than 90K in San Diego where the cost of living is high, have to often work weekends, and we both are not allowed to go on vacation for more than 1 week at a time. To top that off when we finally get to retire at the ripe ol' age of 75 so that we can finally travel, all the social security money that we put into the system will be gone because the politicians are spending it faster than money coming in! So people in our position must put away 20-30% of our salary into a retirement fund or the alternative is to be a burden to our children or have some kind of suicide pact so we don't burden them.

The laughable argument that I hear from teachers is that the pension plans attracts the best talent to teach our children. Talent, really?? The US spends much more per child than any other country in the world yet our test scores in math and science is barely average. Does that sound like a systems that benefits from throwing more money at it? If more money did equate to smarter kids then they should all be Einstein or better. The school system is broken. Children that have both parents to help them with homework have a significant advantage to those who only have a single mom that works 2-3 jobs to pay the bills. More money get directed to schools is rich neighborhoods and less the poor when it should be the opposite. The higher skilled and more educated teachers drift to the schools in richer neighborhoods and away from the inner city schools when, again, it should be the opposite.

We need to get scrap the entire system, have a super smart, teacher programmed, computer like IBM's Watson branch out to every class so that each and every kid gets equally the very best that we can give them. Either that or a interactive video teaching program. Think about it, there is a finite amount of questions that can be asked for any given subject so how hard would it be to have a person create an educational video program able to answer ever single one of them. Study after study has shown that children are more and more mentally stimulated by video type educational media.

We have been teaching the same way for way too long. It is time to do away with it and start from scratch. There are better, cheaper alternatives, than the roll the dice and pray for a good teacher system that we have now.

Did anyone listen to the interviews? Two teachers of the three union-reps "chose" the profession after failing at vanity first-choice gigs.

Prime example, Mr. Pultinas wanted to be an actor and ended up teaching activism AS AN ELECTIVE. Is this the 2nd or 3rd-rate careerist the NY public wants; a "safety" choice made by an activist and reluctant public employee?

I propose to pay teachers more as salary and keep the politics & activists out of the classroom. More pay now may translate into competent, enthusiastic employees and less expensive benefits over time.

PLEASE...How is the teacher work burden so unique? Who doesn't take work home?
Get out of your education cacoon and talk to accountants, enginneers, lawyers and doctors.
They work longer/harder, have student loans, contribute to their own retirement plans, typically pay for their own insurance, pay for their own continuing education ,etc. What they don't have is the unsustainable defined benefit retirement coffer, near immunity from accountability (tenured positions), and luxurious paid sick days/personal days. Most of these professional can't even think about an affordable retirement after 25 years of work. Its called the real world.

When accountants and lawyers bring work home they get paid hundreds of dollars an hour to do that work, not to mention their annual salaries. My point is that your original post is so full of incorrect assumptions, your opinion is baseless.

Heartbreaking story.
22 hard years with summers off, paid medical/ disability/ life insurance and a defined benefit plan! After that oh-so tough education major college curriculum it hardly seems fair. Hang in there Ray! Only 3 more years 'til you get weekends and holidays off. Oh wait, you haven't worked a weekend or holiday in over 2 decades. -Signed Misty Eyed Taxpayer.


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