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A New Approach (and Attitude) Needed for Social Security

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seiu-org-logoA recent study from the National Institute on Retirement Security (NIRS) finds while the retirement crisis affects all, it is particularly dire for households of color. Fewer than half of blacks and Latino workers have retirement plans on the job, leaving the vast majority with no retirement savings and more likely to depend on Social Security’s modest benefits.

What’s equally as disturbing as the findings of this study is the position toward Social Security taken by Charles Blahous, research fellow with the Hoover Institution and one of the trustees appointed to oversee Social Security and Medicare.

In an email interview with the Washington Post, Blahous argued that Social Security has the perverse effect of discouraging cash-strapped people from making a priority of retirement savings.

“A true answer to the problem would mean decreasing our society’s dependence on income transfer programs as a source of retirement income, and increasing the net amount of saving that we do,” he said.

As someone appointed to oversee Social Security, he should know this program remains the foundation of retirement security for almost all Americans as it is the only portable defined benefit retirement plan available to virtually all workers. The problem with Social Security is that alone it doesn’t provide retirees with adequate income as the program was never meant to be the sole source of retirement savings.

More than 65 percent of single and married seniors depended on Social Security for the majority of their income in 2010. We can only expect our reliance on this program to increase as private employers freeze pension plans and cut retirement contributions of all types.

According to the National Academy of Social Insurance, 87 percent of Americans? including 71 percent of Republicans, 97 percent of Democrats, and 86 percent of independents? agree it is critical to preserve Social Security for future generations even if it means increasing taxes paid by wealthier Americans. It’s time for lawmakers and those who help to shape policies to listen to their constituencies who want an opportunity to retire with dignity after a lifetime of hard work and playing by the rules.

This article was originally printed on SEIU on January 6, 2014.  Reprinted with permission.

Author: Eileen Kirlin, SEIU Executive Vice President


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Bold Policies Will Solve Retirement Inequality

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seiu-org-logoRondell Johnson is a 23-year-old baggage handler at the Philadelphia International Airport. He aspires to one day attend business school and prepare for a career as a real estate entrepreneur. But he, like many other low-wage workers who work full time for minimum wages, brings in “just over $15,000 a year before taxes.”

The poverty line for one person who lives alone is $11,490.

The latest Census Bureau data on poverty is a sobering reminder of America’s need to address income inequality. It’s also a wake-up call for lawmakers to create bold policies to strengthen our nation’s retirement system.

Under our current policies, retirement has become one of the greatest examples of income inequality in America. The availability of retirement savings is often tied to income for today’s workers who have fewer savings options than previous generations.

For low-wage workers such as Johnson, obtaining a secure job with decent wages feels difficult, and achieving a secure retirement is virtually impossible.

“I don’t want to retire where I started,” he says. “I started broke. I started in poverty. I’m going to retire into poverty, too? Then what has my life been about at that point?”

A recent report from the Economic Policy Institute shows Rondell’s story is more common today than it was 20 years ago. Our shift from traditional pensions to more individualized savings plans such as the 401(k) has helped spur retirement income inequality in America.

The majority of our most affluent workers have savings sitting in a 401(k) or similar retirement savings account which averaged $308,674 in 2010.

In contrast, only 52 percent of middle-class Americans have savings in retirement accounts where the average balance was only $34,981.

Retirement savings options and balances are severely low for America’s poorest workers who are less likely to have access to a retirement plan at work or cannot afford to contribute enough out of their own stagnant wages. Only 11 percent of workers, representing the lowest quartile, have any 401(k) savings. Their average savings balance is just $7,543.

The rise of the 401(k) has also helped lead to a greater reliance on Social Security. Although Social Security benefits were never intended to be a stand-alone retirement plan, it is the primary source of income for 65.3 percent of retirees.

Perhaps one of the boldest, income gap closing policies lawmakers can implement is strengthening Social Security by making everyone pay their fair share.

If wealthy bankers, CEOs, athletes and celebrities contributed the same percentage of their income to fund Social Security as the 99%, we would also be able to significantly improve benefits for current low-income retirees receiving $1,200 or less a month, deliver retirement security to more workers, and help close the wealth gap.

This article was originally printed on SEIU on September 27, 2013.  Reprinted with permission.

Author: KEIANA GREENE-PAGE.

 


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Oh Great, More CEOs Telling Us We Need to Cut Social Security and Medicare Benefits

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Jackie TortoraAs if we didn’t already have enough on our plates (having to fend off attacks from the “Fix the Debt” CEOs), now there’s another group of CEOs, the Business Roundtable, telling us we need to “modernize,” a.k.a. cut, Social Security and Medicare benefits by raising the eligibility ages and reducing cost-of-living adjustments (COLAs). How helpful. 

R.J. Eskow took on the Business Roundtable in his latest blog, How Extreme Is the Business Roundtable? Check Out Its Attack on the Elderly.

Yesterday, Gary Loveman, CEO of Caesars Entertainment Corp. and head of the Roundtable’s “health and retirement committee,” told Politico that “[a]ny effort to address the country’s fiscal problems has to have as a centerpiece reform of its principal entitlement programs.”

Added Loveman: “None of us [CEOs]—very few of us—are ideologically driven. We’re pragmatists….”

“I am encouraged by how relatively easy these remedies really are,” said Loveman. “… (and) they have a tremendously sanguine effect on the government’s fiscal health.”

That’s true. It is pretty easy. Just kick in a few rich people’s doors, seize their belongings…oh, wait. That’s the other extremist scenario. Loveman’s is the one where people who have paid for Social Security and Medicare coverage throughout their working lives must give some of their benefits up—for him and his friends.

These CEOs are the same people cutting back on pensions and retiree health benefits. Now they want working people to have even more economic insecurity in retirement by cutting the few benefits that keep seniors afloat. 

Raising the Social Security retirement age is especially damaging. Not only is it a benefit cut, workers 55 and older have the longest bouts of unemployment. The average time unemployed is nearly a year (51.3 weeks, compared to 34.3 weeks for workers younger than 55).  

Eskow points out that 8.9% of American seniors already live in poverty, while 5.4% are on the edge. The average Social Security recipient collects $1,164 per month.

Anyone who claims they can cut those benefits by 3%—and use those meager benefits to end elder poverty—is selling snake oil.

Snake oil indeed. There’s nothing more cynical than calling devastating cuts to vital lifelines “modernization proposals.” Working people know the difference. 

This post was originally posted on AFL-CIO on 1/17/2013. Reprinted with Permission.

About the Author: Jackie Tortora is the blog editor and social media manager at the AFL-CIO. Interviewing union musicians was her introduction to the labor movement. Her first job after graduating college was in Syracuse, New York, where she wrote and edited the International Musician, the monthly magazine for the American Federation of Musicians (AFM). Protecting Social Security and Medicare from benefit cuts brought me to Washington, D.C., where she spent two years as a new media coordinator at the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare. She came to the AFL-CIO in the summer of 2012, just in time to re-elect President Barack Obama. When she’s not tweeting about America’s unions, it’s likely she’s watching Syracuse basketball and football. 


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Just When You Thought the Hostess Story Couldn’t Get Worse…

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Kenneth Quinnell

Money that was intended for employee pensions was used by Hostess Brands management to cover operating expenses and workers were never compensated for the lost payment, Yahoo News reports. An undetermined amount of money that Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Miller (BCTGM) members were supposed to receive as part of their contract with the company was used to keep the company running after mismanagement led to significant losses and eventual bankruptcy. 

This was during the same time period that Hostess began paying out massive bonuses to executives. BCTGM learned that the then-Hostess CEO was to be awarded a 300% raise, and at least nine other top executives were to receive raises ranging between 35% and 80%.

The process of taking the pension money was quite simple for Hostess:

For example, John Jordan, the local union financial officer for [BCTGM] Local 334 in Biddeford, Maine, said workers at a Hostess factory in Biddeford agreed to plow 28 cents of their 30-cents-an-hour wage increase in November 2010 into the pension plan.

Hostess was supposed to take the additional 28 cents an hour and contribute it to the workers’ pension plan.

Employees never saw that 28 cents. In July 2011, Hostess stopped making pension contributions and used the money to run the business. Employees never received the pension funds and the compensation Hostess promised the workers was not made up in wages, either.

In all likelihood, the tactic doesn’t violate federal law because the money didn’t get paid to employees first, but went directly to the pension fund. Lawyers call the situation “betrayal without remedy” and it’s unlikely the money can be recovered.

Hostess CEO Gregory Rayburn’s response ranged from understatement to “it’s not my fault.”

Gregory Rayburn, Hostess’s chief executive officer, said in an interview it is “terrible” that employee wages earmarked for the pension were steered elsewhere by the company.

“I think it’s like a lot of things in this case,” he added. “It’s not a good situation to have.”

Mr. Rayburn became chief executive in March and learned about the issue shortly before the company shut down, he said. “Whatever the circumstances were, whatever those decisions were, I wasn’t there,” he said.

Rayburn’s predecessor at Hostess, Brian Driscoll, refused to comment.

The end of pension contributions by the company was a key reason for the BCTGM strike:

Halted pension contributions were a major factor in the bakers union’s refusal to make a deal with the company. After a U.S. bankruptcy judge granted Hostess’s request to impose a new contract, the union’s employees went on strike. Hostess then moved to liquidate the company.

“The company’s cessation of making pension contributions was a critical component of the bakers’ decision” to walk off the job, said Jeffrey Freund of Bredhoff & Kaiser PLLC, a lawyer for the union.

“If they had continued to fund the pension, I think we’d still be working there today,” said Craig Davis, a 44-year-old forklift operator who loaded trucks with Twinkies, cupcakes and sweet rolls at an Emporia, Kan., bakery, for nearly 22 years.

The amount of employee compensation lost by the company is not known, but the numbers are staggering:

In five months before this past January’s bankruptcy filing, the company missed payments to the main baker pension fund totaling $22.1 million, Mr. Freund said.

After that, forgone pension payments added up at a rate of $3 million to $4 million a month until Hostess formally rejected its contracts with the union. The figures include company contributions and employee wages that were earmarked for the pension, according to Mr. Freund.

This post was originally posted on AFL-CIO on December 11, 2012. Reprinted with Permission.

About the Author: Kenneth Quinnell is a senior writer for AFL-CIO, and a former precinct committeeman in the Leon County Democratic Party. He is a former vice chair of the Florida Democratic Party’s Legislative Liaison Committee, and during the 2010 election, through the primary, Kenneth Quinnell worked for the Kendrick Meek campaign. He has written for Think Progress, AFSCME and for OurFuture.org on Social Security.


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Three Concepts That Need to Be ‘Laid Off’

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It’s time to review three ideas that need to be “let go” in 2009.

1. Credit Checks of Job Applicants. According to the Society of Human Resource Management and Kroll, 43% of employers run credit checks on potential employees, up from 36% in 2004. These checks involve rent, student loans, credit cards and mortgages and can make the difference between someone getting hired or having their application tossed.

In the best of times this is a dubious measurement to use when looking to hire someone. But given the rapidly increasing foreclosure rate, ballooning credit card debt and the general demise of capitalism as we’ve know it, credit checks of job applicants are a joke. A very bad joke.

I’d make an exception for people who handle substantial amounts of money as part of doing their jobs, but for a truck driver, administrative assistant or nurse, this is unnecessary. Personally, I believe that it violates our 4th Amendment right against cruel and unusual punishment and this is coming from a guy with a good credit score.

Let’s stop pouring salt in the wounds of our fellow citizens. Credit checks are wrong in the hiring process and need to be stopped.

2. Bonus Formulas. It seems every day that pigs can fly, at least on Wall Street. One day we hear from the President about $18 billion in bonus payments at companies receiving TARP government bailout bucks. Then the next day the headline is that 700 Merrill Lynch workers

received million dollar bonus payments each.

Clearly this proves that there is a parallel universe, one where pigs party like crazy. I think we need to toss all the old bonus formulas and swap them for calculations that actually don’t reward people when the markets sink by 50%. Is that too much to ask?

I’m all for pay for performance, but Wall Street seems to focus on the wrong “p” in the first part of this sentence at the expense of the second “p.”

3. Retirement. Ouch. Retirement has been pushed back for many of us. Instead of kicking back in our early 60s, many of us will now be working until our 70’s. We’ll have no choice.

We might not have a choice about how long we work, but we do have a choice about where we work. That’s why it’s so important to really focus on what we want to do with our careers, to decide what is meaningful and important to each of us.

And this may be the silver lining of the current mess. That it could push many people into jobs that hold more meaning for them.

As a special guest this week, we’re bringing in the star of the Apprentice, and former high roller, to bid adieu to credit checks, bonus formulas and retirement.

Donald: “You’re fired!”

Rosner: “Thanks Mr. Trump.”

About the Author: Bob Rosner is a best-selling author, award-winning journalist and contributor to On The Money. He has been called “Dilbert with a solution.” Check out the free resources available at workplace911.com. You can contact Bob via [email protected]


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