A retired Forest Acres couple told legislators Tuesday they eat only two meals a day, and make house and car repairs themselves to hold down their living expenses.
Combined, retired state employees Lynne and Richard Schmidt earn about $50,000 a year in pension benefits – an incentive, they say, that caused them to work for the state instead of taking better paying jobs in the private sector.
“You promised us when we were hired, that if we would accept a lower salary, you would take care of us,” Lynne Schmidt, 62, told a panel of lawmakers grappling with how to fix the state’s ailing retirement system. “Don’t take that away.”
The S.C. Retirement System has $18.2 billion in unfunded liabilities – the difference between the amount the pension fund has to pay for workers’ retirement benefits and the amount it has promised to pay current employees and retirees in the system.
Lawmakers are grappling with whether to fill that gap with money from S.C. taxpayers or ask state workers and their public-sector employers – state agencies, school districts and local governments – to pay more.
Schmidt was one of several advocates for teachers, police officers, state employees and retirees who urged legislators Tuesday not to fix the pension problem at the expense of those employees and retirees.
Workers should not have to pay more, advocate says
State employees already face lower pay and higher benefit costs compared with their peers in other states and the private sector, said Carlton Washington, the executive director of the State Employees Association.
Those employees are “grossly underpaid,” he said, adding they often qualify for public assistance or have to work second jobs.
Washington said public-sector workers in South Carolina make 15 percent less than other state workers elsewhere and 20 percent less than private-sector workers.
Washington added legislators should not increase the amount state workers contribute from their paychecks to the retirement system. That amount increased to 8.66 percent in the budget year that began July 1, up from 6.5 percent in 2011-12.
Asking state employees to pay even more for their retirements also would hurt morale and make it harder to attract qualified employees, Washington said.
He also asked lawmakers to maintain annual 1 percent cost-of-living increases – capped at $500 – for retirees.
“Every day, South Carolina’s employees are on the front lines of ... helping citizens, delivering vital services all across our state,” Washington said.
Police: Fill vacancies? Or pay benefits?
The joint panel of state representatives and senators has narrowed its focus to the two largest retirement systems – the S.C. Retirement System and the police officers’ system.
Asking police departments to pay more for officers’ retirement costs will force them not to fill vacant public-safety positions or buy equipment, Jarrod Bruder of the S.C. Public Safety Commission told the legislators.
Local governments make up most of the employers in the retirement system. School district employees, including teachers, also are part of the system.
Even with a pension, most retired teachers do not maintain their preretirement quality of life, said Rebecca Rochester, head of a retired educators’ association.
“You all made us a promise of a secure retirement, along with good health benefits, in return for accepting lower wages than the national and the Southeastern average teacher’s salary.” Rochester said. “That was the deal.”
Rochester urged legislators not to fix the pension system on the backs of those already in the system.
“We are not just numbers,” Rochester said, adding the school retirees include teachers, bus drivers, custodians, nurses, principals and coaches. “We are more than a bottom line.
“Remember who we are. Remember that we kept our part of the deal, and remember the promise when you design your plan.”
S.C. Retirement System
The S.C. Retirement System’s unfunded liabilities are estimated at $18.2 billion. Lawmakers are grappling with how to fill that gap.
Who is a beneficiary?
69 years old: Average current age
59 years old: Average age at retirement
23 years: Average years of service at retirement
$42,677: Average final compensation at retirement
$19,774: Average current annual pension benefit
Who is their employer?
577: Local government, including cities and counties
117: School districts, charter schools and some school boards
116: State agencies