Thursday, February 14, 2013

Early Retirement Ages for Firemen + Cops are OK

The public employee pension battle has been flaring up at hot spots and as the economic pie shrinks further and municipal borrowing costs rise, this battle will only get worse. California is the cutting edge, but ever so often, a news report comes from a podunk county or city that reveals pig at the trough behavior by local public employees. There are absolute abuses in negotiations, over sized benefit packages and retirement allowances that can start for very young retirees, but there is one oddity that I support. Retirement ages, whether the ridiculous Greek social security system or rural American teachers retiring at 52, must be reformed, but I am fine with one exception. I agree that police officers and firefighters should have retirement ages around 55.
We definitely need reform of how we calculate police officer and firefighter retirement pensions. Because so many of these negotiations are between the individual municipality and the police or firemen's union, it will be a slow process. My problem with safety employee pensions (as with many other public employees) is the level of compensation. The formulas differ state by state and muni by muni, but no one should be getting the same income retired as they do while actively working. There should be some maximum threshold for these pensions, indexed to inflation. I'd argue public employees like teachers and government workers need a later retirement age, but that's another post. Capping pension payments, disallowing 'spiking' (working OT or cashing out sick leave in a final year to boost the pension payout) or linking them to longer averages of annual salary (top 5 salaries, not final year salary) will help municipalities and states. This is another form of corruption as votes have been finagled and wheels get greased when compensation for protected employees in positions that can't be outsourced to China are involved. Let us focus on the cost of the monthly pension amount or defined benefit vs. defined contribution plans rather than on retirement age due to the nature of their work.
If people on the alt-right and mainstream traditionalists dislike the idea of women fighting on front lines due to physical differences, then we need to consider a ladder unit with two 60 year olds on it vs. a ladder unit with two 20 somethings in their place. Would you want a ladder unit showing up with a couple guys in their mid-50s, or for those mid-50s guys to be at home 'retired' while younger guys come in to rescue you and potentially save your home and family? Instinct and feel are skills or situational awareness internal systems developed with experience, so a 55 year old firefighter will have a wealth of knowledge. That 55 year old is physically a 55 year old. I'm not saying they will automatically be less physically fit than a 30 year old, but chances are they will be less fit, alert, quick and weaker on other measures of strength or stamina. It makes sense to have men who have been firefighters and cops for 20 or more years retire younger than the average desk jockey. My grandfather retired after 25 years as a firefighter, and then worked another job because he was in his fifties and still capable. He just wasn't lugging gear up and down staircases anymore because he didn't trust himself and wouldn't put others at risk. The wear and tear of physical work when lives are on the line makes me support a relatively young retirement age for them.
There are plenty of physical jobs that don't have special, lower retirement ages. Sucks for nurses, roustabouts and welders in the private sector. Some of them might be in private unions. Some of them might have defined contribution retirement plans. Hopefully their compensation during their careers makes up for this problem. As far as cops and firefighters, I don't want a 60 year old lumbering up the steps to help a family in a burning building. I don't want a 60 year old walking the beat, running into criminals or responding to emergencies. We need to reform and change the retirement system for public employees. Pension payouts should have a years worked component rather than the 20 and done that is so often used. Pensions should be designed as a supplement or a step down, not a continuation of their lifestyle and earnings for eternity. These decisions will come to the table as munis start breaking promises because the bills are coming due, and there is not enough money for everyone. There are many features to play with, and far better negotiation points to focus on than asking a fireman or cop to work a few extra years and put the public at risk.

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