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$1.4T in states’ pension fights foreshadowed in RI

October 8, 2012 • Business


In this Thursday, Oct. 4, 2012 photo retiree Jamie Reilly, of North Providence, R.I., drives her car in North Attleboro, Mass. Reilly left her job as a secretary at age 50, thinking her 30 years of state employment would mean good benefits during her later years. But now she said she may be forced to re-enter the workforce at age 55 because the state has put off pension increases. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) — Retired social worker Jim Gillis was told his $36,000 Rhode Island state pension would increase by $1,100 next year to keep up with inflation. But lawmakers suspended annual increases, leaving Gillis wondering how he’ll pay medical bills and whether he’d been betrayed by his former employer.

“When you’re working, you’re told you’ll get certain things, and you retire believing that to be the case,” Gillis said. He and other retirees are challenging the pension changes in a court battle that’s likely to have national implications as other states follow Rhode Island’s lead.

Cities and states around the country are shoring up battered retirement plans by reducing promised benefits to public workers and retirees. All told, states need $1.4 trillion to fulfill their pension obligations. It’s a yawning chasm that threatens to wreck government budgets and prompt tax hikes or deep cuts to education and other programs.

The political and legal fights challenge the clout of public-sector unions and test the venerable idea that while state jobs pay less than private-sector employment, they come with the guarantee of early retirement and generous benefits.

The actions taken by states vary. California limited its annual pension payouts, while Kentucky raised retirement ages and suspended pension increases. Illinois reduced benefits for new employees and cut back on automatic pension increases. New Jersey last year increased employee retirement contributions and suspended pension increases.

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