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The Region

O.C. Pension Plan Raises Worker Ire

Younger government employees say they don't want to pay for increased benefits.

August 07, 2004|Stuart Pfeifer | Times Staff Writer

A proposal to dramatically increase pensions paid to Orange County government workers is meeting resistance from some younger workers who say they don't want to pay for the increased benefits.

At issue is a portion of a proposed three-year labor contract that would allow some veteran employees to retire next year with significantly higher pensions at the expense of younger workers, who will pick up the increased costs through larger contributions to the county pension system.

Members of the Orange County Employees Assn. are scheduled to conclude voting today on the contract, which would freeze employee salaries but include pension increases of up to 60%. Some workers would be able to retire at the age of 55 and receive pension checks equal to their final salaries for the rest of their lives.

The union, which represents about 13,500 county workers, has agreed to finance the nearly $300 million in increased pension benefits by forgoing raises, increasing contributions for medical insurance and making cash payments into the retirement system for 30 years.

If the union and Board of Supervisors agree to the new contract, union officials estimate that more than 800 workers -- about 5% of the county's workforce -- will retire in July when the new benefits would take effect, without having to make the same financial sacrifices as younger workers.

That's the part that bothers workers such as Diane McCloskey, who has served three years as a nonsworn Sheriff's Department employee and is years from retirement. McCloskey said it's unfair that she'll have to pay for those who retire in July and cash in on the new benefits.

"It's a legalized pyramid scheme. Those ready to retire will retire with double the benefits without having to pay for them.... Where is this money coming from? It's coming from those employees left behind to work," said McCloskey, 44, a single mother from Anaheim who would need to work more than 30 years to receive the full benefits.

Debate over the proposed contract has placed some younger and older workers on opposite sides of the issue. Nick Berardino, general manager of the union, said he expects workers will overwhelmingly endorse the contract, but concedes the contract will affect workers differently. "It's impossible to put this in effect in a way that affects everybody equally. How everyone will be affected equally is that everyone, including the county, will benefit."

Berardino said he hasn't sensed a major division among the thousands of workers from more than a dozen agencies who, for the last week, have been voting on the proposal.

"I sense some disagreement among the younger workers. That's part of union contracts. It's healthy. It's what we do," Berardino said. "Once the votes are counted, we'll move forward together, shoulder to shoulder, and hopefully that means ushering in a new era of financial security for working families."

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