By Jennifer Gould
I was deeply saddened by The Oregonian/OregonLive's recent editorial that so casually dismissed the concerns of our state's public employees, ("'It's not fair' is no excuse for putting off PERS reforms: Editorial Agenda 2017," Feb. 18).
This is about more than an issue of fairness. It's about breaking a contract in order to make extreme cuts to the retirement benefits of people who have earned them.
As a public health nurse, I earn less than my counterparts in the private sector. According to the Oregon Center for Nursing, a staff nurse with 30 years of experience makes $30 an hour in a county health department compared to $50 an hour in a private hospital.
And that is OK with me because I am committed to serving the state's most vulnerable. I work with a program that provides home visits for low-income, first-time parents. I help them get their children off to a good start and the evidence shows that our families have great outcomes that save public resources down the road.
I also can afford to make less because of our benefits under the Public Employees Retirement System. That is a promise that was made to me and my family when I entered public service. I am on the lower "Tier 3" scale which means I will have a pension greatly reduced from employees' pensions in prior years and an individual account that 6 percent of my salary goes into.
The PERS proposals on the table will, frankly, gut my retirement benefits. According to an actuarial analysis, my monthly pension will be cut 39 percent and my individual retirement account will be cut 51 percent.
That is not only unfair, it is surely not legal. The proposals on the table would take my 6 percent that is today going into my personal retirement account and give it to the state to pay off its obligation. It is also particularly galling that these cuts are being pushed by the business lobby of some of the richest corporations in the state. I doubt if their CEOs are facing the same economic uncertainty that I am now facing.Share your opinion Submit your essay of 500 words or less to firstname.lastname@example.org. Please include your email and phone number for verification.
If these cuts go through, they will hurt not only me, but all the public health departments in the state. It will be much more difficult than it is today to recruit public health nurses. We already have a nursing shortage and turnover in public health nursing has doubled since 2004. This will make it even worse. People who have nowhere else to turn will face substandard care and long wait times.
PERS costs do not happen in a vacuum. They need to be taken into consideration with the entire budget. When prescription drug costs are skyrocketing out of control, hospital profits are on the rise, and, as the Oregonian reported last week, Oregon corporations are paying only 80 percent of the public benefit they receive, should we be gutting retirement benefits for teachers, firefighters and nurses?
It is time for Salem lawmakers to show some real leadership and balance the budget without breaking their contract with public workers.
Jennifer Gould is a registered nurse and a board certified lactation consultant. She lives in Northeast Portland.
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