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Sunday, May 22, 2011

Lowest paid workers hurt the most by Florida's pension reform

From the

by Eve Samples

this year — and rightly so.

Taxpayers faced with $1.3 billion in cuts to Florida's public school system have no tolerance for waste, whether it's in the form of runaway travel expenses or unchecked vehicle allowances.

When Gov. Rick Scott released a list of retired public employees who earn an annual pension of at least $100,000 in March, it was greeted with the outrage he presumably desired. It helped Scott make his case for reforming Florida's pension system.

But did you read the fine print on that list? Only two of the 542 unnamed fat cats were former Martin County employees — a tiny percentage of the county's retired staff.

A much larger segment of public employees in Martin County toil for wages that will never earn them such extravagant pensions.

Our newsroom makes an annual habit of checking on the $100,000-and-up earners in our county, but what about the under-$40,000 crowd? With that question in mind, I asked the clerk of courts office to provide a list of all the Martin County employees who fall into that category.

The numbers were noteworthy: Of the 834 employees on the county's payroll, 227 earned less than $40,000 during the 2010 budget year (only three were part-time workers).

Of those, 86 earned less than $30,000, with the lowest-paid bringing in $22,335.

The bottom-rung workers are our library assistants, our custodians, our parks employees, our maintenance people. And, starting July 1, they will see a 3 percent drop in their pay, like every other employee who participates in the Florida Retirement System.

As part of state lawmakers' overhaul of the state's pension program — the one Scott pushed for — some 650,000 employees will be required to start contributing that amount to their own retirement plans. There is no corresponding raise to make up for the lost take-home pay.

"When you make under $40,000 in this economy, it doesn't hold up a lot for a family of two, three or four," said Jeffrey Callahan, chief steward for Teamsters Local 769, which represents about 250 Martin County government workers.

Callahan, an ocean lifeguard and emergency medical technician, earned $36,447 last year. He has not had a raise in five years. He will take home about $91 less a month when the 3 percent mandate kicks in.

Workers like him will cut back on luxuries such as cable television or dining out. For others, the consequences are more dire.

"For some of our members, it's just affecting the daily needs that they have," Callahan said. "We're talking about things like keeping their lights on, keeping up with their mortgage, staying in their homes."

Florida needed to reform its pension system. The vast majority of states require workers to contribute to their pensions, and phasing in some contribution was appropriate.

But an across-the-board 3 percent contribution will more dramatically affect the working class, from teachers to city and county employees.

The top-earning government employees may simply save less money.

But the rank-and-file workers who don't have wiggle room in their budgets are another story.

They don't like to stick their necks out and publicly complain — most are too busy doing their jobs — but they will feel the pinch when July 1 rolls around.

Eve Samples is a columnist for Scripps Treasure Coast Newspapers. This column reflects her opinion. For more on Martin County topics, follow her blog at Contact her at 772-221-4217 or

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