In firehouses and police stations, union halls and county offices, workers eligible to retire are asking each other the same question: Are you putting in your papers? With Gov. Chris Christie targeting public-worker benefits in fiery speeches, they’re wondering if it’s time to get out, before legislators remake the pension system. Anthony Caputo, New Brunswick’s police director, put in his retirement papers Feb. 3, more than a week after top elected officials said they would target public-employee pensions. “It definitely played a role in my decision,” Caputo said. “Every cop, once they hit 25 years, they wonder: What am I going to do with my life?”
And now that Republicans and Democrats have introduced a four-bill package to trim pensions and benefits, union officials warn that New Jersey’s most-experienced police officers, firefighters and municipal workers will flee the system before the changes take effect.
“You’re going to see a mass exodus,” said Anthony Wieners, president of the New Jersey State Policemen’s Benevolent Association, which represents 33,000 officers. “They’re moving forward on this too quickly. They’re not thinking it out properly.”
Although the proposed pension changes would largely affect future workers, they also would require all public employees — rather than just state workers — to contribute at least 1.5 percent of their salary toward health benefits now and when they retire.
The reform proposal also includes banning future part-timers from the pension system, and it would readjust the number of years used to calculate benefits, resulting in smaller checks. And payouts for unused sick leave — which can run into six figures for some public employees — would be capped at $15,000.
On Friday, Christie ruled out shrinking the pensions of current retirees. But the governor’s tough talk about curbing workers’ benefits — repeated in his Thursday address to the Legislature about the state budget crisis — have union officials worried that he’s just warming up.
“There is a lot of fear,” said Hetty Rosenstein, state director at the Communications Workers of America, which represents 55,000 public employees. “They don’t feel confident that their work will be respected and protected.”
Municipal, pension and union officials say there are no hard numbers showing an uptick in retirement requests, and that it’s too early to tell how many will put in for it. But some who have worked long enough say they are retiring or considering it.
Arthur Zielinski of Brick moved up his retirement from the Jersey City Fire Department by a month to ensure his benefits weren’t affected.
Other firefighters across the state described a nervousness among the most-veteran members.
“I’m getting calls from all of my senior guys,” said North Hudson Regional Fire and Rescue Capt. Brian McGorty, also a union official. “We’re going to see quite a few of them put their papers in.”
ISSUE OF EXPERIENCE
Even though employees might leave — taking their institutional knowledge with them — mayors and state leaders say they agree with Christie’s contention that they need to remake a pension system too generous for the state budget to handle.
“You could have a brain drain,” said Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver (D-Essex). “The long-term cost savings of these plans is worth it.”
Mayors say the proposed pension changes are not enough to prompt a mass exit. “There’s nobody that’s going to run out the door for 1.5 percent of their pension,” said Elizabeth Mayor J. Christian Bollwage, a Democrat. “It’s smoke and mirrors. It does absolutely nothing.”
Irvington Mayor Wayne Smith said the struggling economy will ensure people don’t leave the public sector. “In a tight economic climate, people aren’t looking to leave jobs,” he said. ”
Christie says state government “cannot continue to sustain” current benefit packages. The pension system is underfunded by at least $34.4 billion, according to a Treasury Department snapshot taken in June 2008. An updated report is due Feb. 25.
Workers and union leaders say the underfunding is the state’s own fault. For nearly 20 years, governors of both parties withheld payments into the account. Christie said Thursday the state would withhold a small payment — $100 million, which is 4 percent of the more than $2 billion annual payment recommended.
The two recessions and stock market collapses of the last decade have had an even more devastating effect on the system, state pension director Fred Beaver said.
Some public workers say they’re being vilified by politicians who cite extreme examples of big pension payouts.
“The majority of the average police officers and firefighters, they don’t get those payouts.” said East Orange Deputy Fire Chief Paul Daly, a 25-year veteran. “It’s disingenuous at best for the politicians to cite that.”
He said departments could lose crucial experienced workers if benefits are trimmed.
“Most of the training that I received is after a fire, back at the firehouse in the kitchen having a cup of coffee with senior members,” said Daly, who’s also a union official. “They’re pointing out little things, things we did right, things we did wrong, things you have to watch for in the future.”
Steve Baker, spokesman for the New Jersey Education Association, which represents almost 120,000 teachers, said he’s worried new people will be discouraged from teaching careers.
“Everything that’s done changes the calculation for whether this is a good career choice,” he said. “At some point, people cross the line and say, I can’t afford to do this.”
Timothy Fleming, who retired from the Hunterdon County Department of Corrections after just over 25 years, said pension and health benefits are a primary reason people work for the government.
“We weren’t going to be making a tremendous amount of money,” he said. “A lot of people go into public service if you know you’re going to get good benefits.” Star Ledger