FIREFIGHTERS EARNED AND DESERVE THEIR PENSIONS

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By Steve Wilding, Fire Fighter, Oak Creek Local 1848

Every day, firefighters like me put our lives on the line for communities across the state. Whatever time of the day it is, when the bell rings in the firehouse, we take the call. We strap up, hop on our trucks, and race to the car accident, house or office building fire. We do it without question, knowing the risks or dangers that may lie ahead. We work hard and long hours and our bodies deteriorate quickly due to long-term stress, but we know that we can retire with dignity thanks to our defined benefit pension.

I have been a firefighter for 28 years, working in Oak Creek. Ever since I was a kid, all I wanted to do was fight fires and give back to my community. This job is tough. It requires thousands of hours of training and preparation and requires a lot of time away from family. I do it because I care about the community that I have been entrusted to protect and serve.

After years of service, firefighters like me have the ability to retire with dignity – to take care of our families and ourselves, volunteer in our communities, and to give back – all due to the pension we have earned. Pensions are given to public employees like me after a lifetime of working for our communities – whether we are firefighters, police officers, sanitation workers, teachers, or mental health professionals – we dedicate our lives to our communities.

Over the years, we’ve seen other states attempt to undermine our public pensions, including closing the pension system and moving new employees to risky defined contribution 401(k)s. This would be harmful to public employees and could create a fiscal nightmare for our state. 401(k) plans are subject to the whims of the market and if we have another recession like in 2008, working people can lose much of their retirement savings.

Even the founders of the 401(k) said it was never intended to be a primary retirement vehicle – instead it wasn’t known widely outside of the c-suite, where wealthy executives used the tax code to write off large tax bills. Additionally, the median savings in a 401(k)-style account in America is only $18,000 – a tiny fraction of what’s required to retire with dignity. Maybe that’s one reason why 80% of Americans believe the disappearance of pensions has made it harder to achieve the “American Dream.”

Unlike 401(k) plans, the average pension benefit in Wisconsin is $23,430 annually, for life. Pensions earn higher returns than 401(k)’s, are well-regulated, professionally managed, and have lower fees. According to the Center for Retirement Research, pensions earn almost a full percent higher returns than 401(k) plans. Most importantly, pensions allow for better retention of public employees and allow for the best and brightest to be recruited. Pensions are the best option not only for firefighters, but for all working people.

Wisconsin is not exempt from this type of anti-pension legislation. We currently have legislation that was just introduced by State Senator Stroebel that would raise the retirement age for all public employees, including public safety officers and firefighters, as well as change the way pension payments are calculated. This type of legislation is not only wrong for Wisconsin, but also is completely unnecessary due to the 100% funded status of the Wisconsin Retirement System. I urge the legislature to reject this type of legislation and to focus on more pressing issues in Wisconsin.