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O.C. Workers Union OKs Pension-Boosting Pact

Government employees to skip raises, pay more into retirement. Deal now goes to supervisors.

August 10, 2004|Stuart Pfeifer | Times Staff Writer

Orange County's largest union of government workers has voted overwhelmingly to support a contract that substantially boosts pensions but that also requires workers to forgo raises and make out-of-pocket payments to cover the increased retirement pay.

After a spirited debate that included comment from rank-and-file workers and the skeptical county treasurer, 87% of workers who cast ballots endorsed the contract, said Nick Berardino, general manager of the Orange County Employees Assn. Nearly half of the eligible voters cast ballots -- a record turnout, Berardino said.

The three-year contract, which affects thousands of employees in several county departments, would reconstruct the retirement system, enabling employees to retire as early as age 55 with pensions equal to or near their final salaries. Under the current system, county employees need to work until at least 62 to receive full benefits.

Some younger employees spoke out against the contract, even setting up a website that encouraged workers to oppose the deal, saying they didn't think it was fair that they would make increased payments into the retirement system while older employees reap the benefits immediately.

County Treasurer-Tax Collector John M.W. Moorlach also questioned the wisdom of the contract, noting that it puts the county retirement system, already underfunded by $1 billion, another $300 million in debt.

The Board of Supervisors is scheduled to vote on the pact at its Aug. 24 meeting.

Under the agreement, new benefits would begin July 1 and lead to an expected mass exodus of county workers. Berardino estimated that more than 800 employees -- about 5% of the county workforce -- would retire if the new benefits were approved.

Also on July 1, those employees who do not retire would agree to pay a portion of their salaries into the retirement system to cover the costs of the increased benefits. The money would be in addition to the 1% payments that most employees now make to cover retiree medical benefits.

Berardino said he was pleased that workers approved the deal, noting that the county has a substandard pension system that has resulted in some employees leaving for jobs with cities or counties that offer better retirement benefits.

"It's haunted me and our organization that so many great people have given so much to public service only to be subjected to lower-than-poverty-level incomes upon their retirements," he said. "This is a great day for [the association].... The members have spoken. It was an overwhelming mandate. It was a great thing for the county, and it's a great thing for us."

One member not so happy with the vote was Flavio DeMoraes, a Sheriff's Department civilian employee who set up a website pointing out the increased costs to younger workers. If the contract is finalized, DeMoraes and other employees will have about 2% of their pay deducted to cover the increased benefits.

"To be honest, people got bamboozled. That's what happens to these knuckleheads who don't know what the heck they're voting for," DeMoraes said. "Why are we giving those people a going-away present at my expense? These people are taking advantage of the situation, and we're going to pay for it."

Moorlach said he was not surprised that workers approved the pact, noting that the median age of county workers is 43 and within sight of the new retirement benefits.

"All the employees are going to be so excited to get this gift. You increase your benefits and you didn't pay for it. Well, someone is going to," he said. "If you're close to retirement age, you're elated. If you're new and you're young, you're going to be burdened."

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