U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown holds field hearing on protecting public workers’ Social Security benefits

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U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-OH, leading a panel discussion on public workers’ Social Security benefits. (Photo by Nick Evans for Ohio Capital Journal.)

U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-OH, has spent several years trying to repeal two federal provisions that reduce retirement income for many public servants. Friday, he held a Congressional subcommittee field hearing in Columbus to discuss the issue.

The audience of mostly union members hoisted signs and supplied a steady chorus of ‘yeah’s, ‘mm-hmm’s and ‘that’s right’s. Packed to the gills matching t-shirts or buttons, the Columbus Firefighter’s union hall felt a bit closer to a rally than a congressional hearing.

In many cases, public sector workers — think police, firefighters, teachers and school support staff — don’t pay in to the Social Security system. The idea is their union-negotiated pension programs take the place of the federal retirement program. But in practice, many of those employees work in the private sector as well.

Maybe they worked somewhere else before becoming a teacher. Or they started a new gig after retiring from the police force. Or they picked up a second job to make ends meet because their fire department followed a 24-hours on, 48-hours off schedule.

Those workers often get a shock when they reach the Social Security retirement age. Because they have a public sector pension, federal law reduces the social security benefits they can collect. The so-called Windfall Elimination Provision trims an individual’s social security check and the Government Pension Offset affects what a spouse may collect.

Brown’s Senate colleague, U.S. Sen. J.D. Vance, R-OH, is a co-sponsor of the repeal effort known as the Social Security Fairness Act, and at Friday’s hearing, Brown announced the bill has the support of 59 Senators — one shy of the number needed to bring it to a vote.

Ohio impacts

According to Brown’s office, nearly 3 million beneficiaries have seen their social security checks reduced because of the law. More than 270,000 of them come from Ohio.

“The people it effects are not powerful special interests,” Brown said. “They’re local cops they’re local sheriff’s deputies, they’re firefighters, they’re teachers, they’re bus drivers, they pick up our trash, they plow our roads.”

“Punishing public service,” he added, “by cutting Social Security they earned in other jobs is not a good way to recruit and retain workers — makes no sense.”

He kicked off the hearing with a public safety panel, with representatives from police, sheriffs and firefighters.

Lieutenant Brian Steel from the Fraternal Order of Police described a retired Columbus Police Officer named Andrea Barrett. When she began her service in 1975, Barrett was among the department’s first ten female officers. She retired in 2001, and visited the social security office when she was approaching 67.

“I supplied them with my work experience before, during and after my time with the division only to be advised that my pension was too high and would be penalized,” Steel related from Barrett’s letter. “Instead of almost $800 a month in prepaid contributions, I receive $190 monthly from the Social Security Administration.”

She described it as “a slap in the face,” Steel said.

“This is outrageously unfair,” Steel told Sen. Brown. “Public employees did not create the current challenges facing Social Security, yet Congress forces us to give up our earned benefits and punish(es) those of us who serve the public. We are not asking for any special treatment only for what we’ve rightfully earned.”

George Sakellakis from the Ohio Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association said there are “tens of thousands” of similar anecdotes, and that social security benefit reductions of 50% or more are common.

He added, “It is not at all uncommon for a retiree who loses their spouse to find that the GPO will leave them with a survivor’s benefit cut of nothing — or to add insult to injury — a dollar or two per month.”

Carl Jordan from the Ohio Association of Professional Firefighters said “I was always taught by my parents, that if I worked hard, kept my nose clean, good thing would happen for me. I can see now that that was not always the case, as the benefits I should have received from Social Security have been reduced by approximately 25%”

Because of that reduction, Jordan said, he’ll have to come up with other money to cover his mortgage for two and half years more that he would have otherwise.

“The fundamental issue is if you pay into Social Security, you’ve earned the benefits,” Brown said after the panel discussion. “And whether you’re a public employee, or you work for a private company, you’ve earned those social security benefits. They shouldn’t be cut. You should get them.”

Follow OCJ Reporter Nick Evans on Twitter.

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