Ohio emergency workers face later retirement
A state-paid consultant's recommends raising their minimum retirement age by five years
By Rebecca McKinsey,
The Columbus Dispatch
COLUMBUS, Ohio — White hair and creaky knees aren't what most people expect to see in the emergency crew responding to their 911 call.
But first responders are worried a state-paid consultant's recommendation that Ohio's pension systems raise their minimum retirement age by five years could make that image a reality.
A team of actuaries recommended an increase to age 57 from the current 52 for safety forces and 67 from 62 for others in a report presented to the Ohio Retirement Study Council and the Ohio House's Health and Aging Subcommittee on Retirement and Pensions.
While no dollar figure was put on the recommendation, making government workers stay on the job for five more years would save many millions in retirement dollars. But firefighters, police officers and State Highway Patrol troopers are pushing back, saying an increased retirement age, given the physical and mental demands of their jobs, would be bad news.
"That's absolutely ridiculous," said John Capretta, a 15-year Columbus firefighter and vice president of Columbus Firefighters Union Local 67. "You don't want 57-year-old firemen driving to rescue people from buildings. By that age, their knees and backs are gone from lifting and all the hard work they do."
Ohio's five pension systems submitted proposals in 2009 to the General Assembly with sweeping adjustments designed to improve their fiscal condition enough to pay off their unfunded liabilities within 30 years -- mandated by state law -- and ensure the long-term solvency of the health-care benefits they offer.
The systems are the Public Employees Retirement System, State Teachers Retirement System, School Employees Retirement System, Highway Patrol Retirement System and Police & Fire Pension Fund.
Although the Ohio Senate passed five bills based on the plans in May, members of the House wanted to wait until the $240,000 study sanctioned by the Retirement Study Council was completed. The retirement-age recommendation was included in the report, which was released in July.
Leaders of some of the pension systems aren't against the suggestion. The state teachers' and public employees' retirement systems had already included increased retirement ages in their plans, and the Police & Fire Pension Fund had proposed an increase from age 48 to 52.
But to change the safety forces' retirement age to 57 is going too far, critics say.
Safety workers are often termed "industrial athletes," and with good reason, said Mark Sanders, president of the Ohio Association of Professional Fire Fighters and a lieutenant with the Cincinnati Fire Department.
As they grow older, their job becomes significantly more difficult and unsafe, not only for them but for the people they serve, he said.
When they enter a burning building, firefighters are wearing more than 60 pounds of gear and carrying axes, sledgehammers or fire hoses. They're exposed to smoke, toxins and weak floors.
"Believe me, it's a young person's job, male or female," Sanders said.
The conditions police officers can face are equally treacherous, said Jay McDonald, president of the Fraternal Order of Police of Ohio and a Marion police officer.
"You go from a restful sitting position to -- you could be in an all-out fight for your life in a matter of seconds," he said. "It's not like you have time to stretch or warm up."
But the demands aren't just physical, McDonald said. The mental toll adds up as well.
After years of police work, an officer's drive past an intersection can dredge up memories of a bloody fatal accident there. An apartment complex can be a reminder of a child who was shot or a baby who died in a fire there.
Many police officers also have to cope with partners who were killed or situations that required them to shoot and kill someone. More years of work would only compound these memories, McDonald said.
The demands of the job are also high for those who patrol Ohio's highways, and youth and strength can be important, said Mark Atkeson, executive director of the Highway Patrol Retirement System and a former trooper.
"Every time you stop a car, you don't know what you're going to be stopping," he said. "Are you stopping a drug dealer? Are you stopping a drunk driver?
"Are you stopping a nice elderly person, or are you stopping a mobster of some sort?"
The toll these jobs can take has been documented by many studies. The University of Buffalo conducted one of the most-recent ones.
Released in July, the study found that the psychological demands of police work are more likely to cause health problems. The stresses of the job are tied to obesity, insomnia, cancer and suicide, according to the study.
The retirement-age adjustment isn't a foregone conclusion, though. The pension systems representing Ohio's safety forces don't plan to implement the change right now. In fact, the consultant's report only suggests the adjustment -- one of a dozen or more -- if economic problems force pension systems to make additional benefit changes beyond those that were passed by the Senate.
The age change is sensible because it saves money both before and after retirement, especially given today's longer life expectancy, said Flick Fornia, founder and president of Pension Trustee Advisors, which helped conduct the study of Ohio's pension systems.
It would require workers to pay into the pension system for longer and to need the post-retirement health-care benefits for fewer years, he said.
Fornia said the Police & Fire Pension Fund and the Highway Patrol Retirement System are the two most likely to need changes that go further than the current plans to revamp their systems.
But legislators said their bills will be based on what the pension systems themselves say they need -- including higher retirement ages.
"We should listen to these public servants and have them tell us what is possible and what is reasonable," said Rep. Dan Ramos, D-Lorain, a member of both the study council and the House subcommittee. "They're reasonable people and will tell you the truth. It's not about trying to do something that isn't earned.
"They absolutely earned (a lower retirement age) by putting their lives on the line every day."
Rep. Kirk Schuring, R-Canton, chairman of the subcommittee and a council member, said lawmakers won't act on their own, but will wait for a recommendation from pension system leaders.
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