Pension reform could hit oldest retired teachers the hardest
The oldest, like Daisy Rittgers, 105, have the smallest pensions to begin with and often depend on the potentially threatened 3% annual increases
Daisy Rittgers rode a farm horse named Prince to the one-room wooden schoolhouse where she taught in central Illinois’ Shelby County during the Great Depression, but now Springfield politicians eager to reduce state pension costs have her riding a roller coaster.
After more than four decades of doing everything from washing the windows to running recess to grading papers, Rittgers retired in 1972 with a yearly pension of $6,327. Forty-one years later, she’s 105 years old and collects $20,796 a year — less than half what the average retired teacher outside Chicago gets.
Rittgers’ pension eventually was helped by the power of an automatic compounded 3 percent cost-of-living increase each year, but that hedge against inflation may no longer be a sure thing. Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn and numerous lawmakers have backed proposals to freeze that yearly bump in retirement checks for three or more years.
“I was afraid of that,” Rittgers said. “Why should anybody take it away from me? Right’s right, and wrong’s wrong.”
The modest pensions of Rittgers and 120 other centenarians as old as 109 in the Illinois Teachers’ Retirement System illustrate a concern for lawmakers as they try to dig out of a worst-in-the-nation $96.8 billion pension debt: A one-size-fits-all approach inevitably fails to consider everyone’s circumstances. And pension changes could affect not only teachers, but rank-and-file state workers and university employees as well.
It’s easy to see why lawmakers want to curtail the current setup. The power of compounded interest means that at 3 percent a year, the price of each retiree’s pension doubles after 24 years. With most employees living longer, that adds billions of dollars to the pension debt.
But the idea of stopping annual cost-of-living increases draws heavy resistance from some lawmakers, who argue that such a move would put too much of a burden on current retirees, especially older ones with smaller pensions.
The concept isn’t unique to the state’s pension systems. Last year, Mayor Rahm Emanuel suggested a 10-year freeze on annual increases for city-related pension plans when he testified at the Capitol. Rhode Island, a state that overhauled its heavily underfunded pension systems, placed a freeze on annual retirement increases until its pension plans are 80 percent funded. The small state has a way to go — its pension system is around 50 percent funded.
In Illinois, the question of whether a cost-of-living freeze eventually is part of a pension overhaul is far from settled. The governor and lawmakers have yet to agree on even a small pension fix, much less a sweeping one, even as the state’s finances grow ever shakier.
Democratic Rep. Elaine Nekritz, of Northbrook, a leading pension reform advocate, pushed a proposal that initially would have stopped automatic pension increases for six years. There’s no such freeze in her latest version, but bills sponsored by other lawmakers keep the idea alive.
“I’m not going to tell you it’s off the table,” Nekritz said, “but we’re certainly going to have a concrete understanding of who we’re impacting and how.”
The high-profile pension discussions also have exposed the disparities between retirement plans for educators who worked in wealthy suburban school districts and the less-well-off downstate districts, as well as how the newly retired rake in more than their older colleagues.
By way of example, retired New Trier Township High School District 203 Superintendent Henry Bangser, 63, gets $277,617 a year from the teacher pension fund. That breaks down to $23,134 a month — more than Rittgers makes in one year. The annual 3 percent automatic increase boosts Bangser’s pension by $673 a month. That’s more than the $605 total increase Rittgers sees for the entire year.
“The higher-ups, principals and assistants get better wages than the teachers that do the work,” Rittgers said.
Doing the work has a whole different meaning today than when Rittgers first taught.
“My first term, I had 45 pupils,” she said. “Believe me, I was scared when I faced them. All eight grades. I had 14 in the seventh and eighth grades.”
When the schoolhouse got chilly, she carried the coal to light a big iron stove to warm everyone, heat their soup and make their wet gloves and shoes drier and toasty warm. She had to clean up, including chores like washing the windows and sweeping.
At recess, she played games like drop the hankie, hopscotch and a version of baseball where the bats were whittled out of boards and the balls crafted out of a corncob, melted rubber and a sock.
She made $60 a month. And, yes, she graded papers. She also waited years to see laws passed that slowly boosted her annual increases to today’s compounded 3 percent level.
Today, the average pension at the Illinois Teachers’ Retirement System, which covers the suburbs and downstate, is $48,216 a year — more than twice the state pension for Rittgers. It’s a disparity exacerbated when a person has the good fortune to live way beyond life expectancies. When teacher pension officials calculate how much money they need to cover pensions, they figure the life span of women to be about 88.
Some lawmakers have tried to protect retirees with the lowest pensions from getting caught in the same broad-brush attempt to cut the big costs of the annual increases by freezing them for several years.
One idea is to let retirees keep receiving compounded 3 percent annual increases for only the first $25,000 of their pensions — or the first $20,000 if they receive Social Security with their state job as well a state pension. Under that plan, folks with the biggest pensions would get much smaller increases than they currently do while those with the lowest could continue to get protection against inflation.
Teachers face other financial hurdles in retirement.
Public school teachers are not eligible for Social Security for time in the classroom, thanks to a choice Illinois made decades ago under the reasoning that the pensions would be superior to Social Security. Teachers would get Social Security only on income from other jobs. Plus, thanks to federal law, their Social Security benefits are reduced if they are collecting a state teacher pension, officials said.
There’s also the struggle to foot much of their health insurance costs until they can join Medicare, if in fact they can. Unlike state workers, teachers have to pay a major insurance premium — now at an average of about $600 a month for a retiree, officials said. The state contributes to the retired teacher plans but does not finance them at the rate it does for most other state workers.
Illinois Education Association President Cinda Klickna doesn’t think it’s fair for retirees like Rittgers to face potential cuts from what she had expected to collect, particularly when many seniors can’t get a side job to make ends meet. The teachers union leader said lawmakers need to think about the “ramifications of what this will do to people later in life.”
“To me, it’s not just a financial figure on a piece of paper,” said Klickna, who also sits on the teacher pension board. “It’s about real people who have real needs, and I do think it’s part of our responsibility as citizens that we help those who need the help.”
Tribune reporter Jason Grotto contributed.