RACINE — Department heads throughout the City of Racine will be spending a lot of time filling vacancies over the next few months.
Fifty-two city employees retired last year — 28 of them in December.
Most of the retirements occurred among union represented employees, including 17 workers from the city’s Department of Public Works, 15 from the Police Department, and 11 from the Fire Department.
Speaking about the retirements this week, union leaders for many of those employees, said that while most employees who left were of retirement age, many chose to retire earlier than they had planned—a few at a penalty—to lock in benefits they had in 2014.
For members of AFSCME Local 67, the Racine Police Association and Racine Firefighters Local 321 the first day of 2015 marked the end of two two-year, back-to-back union contracts.
The agreements were approved by aldermen in late 2010 and early 2011, just months before Acts 10 and 32 took effect. Act 10 barred all public employees, save police and firefighters, from collectively bargaining for anything other than base wages. Act 32, barred police and fire unions from discussing health care plan design and impact, while also requiring any employee hired after June 30, 2011 to pay their WRS employee share.
With the Local 67 members knowing negotiators wouldn’t be able to bargain for health care or pension contributions come 2015, Scott Sharp, a consultant and former president of the union, said many chose to leave in 2014 to ensure their health care contribution requirements would be the same in retirement as they were in their last contract.
Under the 2013-2014 contracts, members of Local 67, as well as members of the police and fire unions, were required to contribute 5 percent of their health care costs, with their monthly payment or premium capped at about $40 for a single person and about $70 for a family.
In August the City Council voted to require all city employees—save police and firefighters whose unions were still in negotiations with the city at the time—to start contributing 10 percent of their health care costs in 2015, bringing monthly premiums to $66 for a single plan and $174 for family plan, and removing the caps. Unrepresented city employees—less than a third of the city’s workforce—had been contributing about 7.5 percent of health care costs prior to the change.
Facing those hikes and the absence of caps, about 20 Local 67 members—17 of them public works employees—chose to retire, some of them a few years early, Sharp said.
“They love serving the public and doing their jobs, but they had to look out for themselves and their families,” said Sharp, 57, who retired two years ago from the Department of Public Works due to an work injury.
Local 67 Vice President Pat McMillian sad the main reason she was retiring was to lock in benefits. At 58, the accounts receivable coordinator had been with the city for 27 ½ years. She wanted to stay a few more years, but didn’t want to see her health insurance premiums go up.
“I wanted to stay until I got my 30 years, but I decided I better go,” she said.
At the police and fire departments, union leaders said many of the more than 20 men and women who left retired to avoid higher health insurance premiums in retirements.
Some also left because, like Local 67 members, they were also facing having to pay the employee share of their state pension contributions like unrepresented city employees. Without a raise this year, the requirement amounted to a 6.8 percent cut in pay, union leaders said.
“We can leave at 50, but 53 is the age that most officers retire,” said Criminalist Todd Hoover, president of the Racine Police Association. “There are a couple that left a little bit early, I believe because of the contracts.”
Police and firefighters or any other city employees who retire before 53 face cuts to their pension payments of 0.2 percent for each month they retire prior to their 53rd birthday.
“We have a couple guys going right now that are going to taking a penalty so they can lock in their insurance and not have to pay the 6.8 percent (pension contribution),” President of Racine Firefighters Local 321 Jeffrey Peterson said.