By Carol Costello and Bob Ruff
We caught up with New York City Sanitation worker Chris Becker along his route in downtown Manhattan. It was 10 a.m. and Becker had been hard at work hauling the city’s garbage into his truck for four hours already.
Why did he take a job that defines backbreaking work?
“I didn’t come on the job straight out of school,” he told us. “I came on the job when I was 26-years-old. I saw all the big corporate mergers and people buying up companies and, you know, I got a little nervous, so I went for security. I took a couple of tests and sanitation was the first one that called me. I took it.”
A big part of that security for Becker is the Sanitation Worker’s Pension Plan. It allows him to retire after 20 years on the job, with full benefits, so long as he keeps contributing almost 10% of his salary to the plan. Now 37, Becker can retire at 46 and immediately start receiving his pension roughly equal to half his salary every year for the rest of his life.
Becker’s pension and those of millions of other state and local government workers without question provide them with security. But to cities and states struggling to balance budgets in a bad economy, those pensions represent a financial commitment that some of them say they can’t meet, at least not in full.
The conservative Heritage Foundation’s David John, along with his colleague Bill Gale of the Brookings Institution, have written extensively about pensions.
“There are going to be certain states and local governments, “ John says, “that are probably going to need a bailout or they’re going to need to file a bankruptcy.”
And why have so many gone so deeply in debt?
“If you make a pension promise now and you’re an officeholder,” John says, “you obviously make people very happy in the short run and you’ll be long out of office before you have to pay that sort of thing … (also) so many of these pensions are enshrined in contracts, it’s very hard and very expensive to go through and pull some of them …”
Chris Becker’s pension, for example, along with other publicly funded pensions in New York State, cannot be touched unless the unions that negotiated those contracts agree to do so.
Marcia Fritz, president of the California Foundation for Fiscal Responsibility and Change, has decided to tackle the problem head on in her state.
“We’ve got to do something,” she told us. “We’ve got an SOS going on with pension obligations … we’re in a "unionocracy." They’re the ones who decide who’s on the other side of the table to negotiate with them. And then they ask for what they want and they get it.”
Fritz estimates that the two largest pension systems in California are around $165 billion in debt. She and her colleagues are moving full steam to put a measure on the California ballot this fall that limits pension benefits for new public employees. This week they plan to begin gathering signatures.
Meanwhile, back in New York, we asked Chris Becker what he thinks about those who want to limit pensions for new public employees.
“I would say that’s terrible and it would be very unfair because this is a close-knit job. … Different pensions basically take away from morale on the job. And you know the public would probably end up with worse services in those cases if morale is low.”
What about suggestions that public pensions must be cut for current employees in order to save cities and even states from bankruptcy?
“Then there’s really no reason to take the job … you know, it’s really the only draw for our job is our pension, our benefits. … I don’t think it’s fair because of the economic downturn had nothing to do with us. You know, we really didn’t cause this mess.”