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Public workers could pay thousands toward benefits under Walker plan

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Darryl Enriquez
Marcia Nelesen
February 19, 2011

Donna Stenner faithfully sets aside money in savings every month as a worker is supposed to do.


But under Gov. Walker’s proposal, that might stop, along with movies and restaurants, Stenner said. She would have $151 less in her paycheck every month because she would have to pay for her share of retirement contributions—about $1,812 a year.


Stenner is an accounts payable clerk supervisor for the Janesville schools. She is also chief steward of AFSCME Local 938. Her union does not yet have an agreement with the district, so she would likely feel the results immediately if Walker’s bill passes.


Stenner’s annual gross salary is $31,242, or $2,604 per month.


Her health insurance premium now is $1,440 monthly, of which she pays $43.


She doesn’t know what would happen to her insurance payments under Walker’s proposal.


She initially was worried that she would be held to the percentage that state workers would have to pay, which is 12.6 percent of premiums. That would have cost $181 a month for insurance. When combined with a pension contribution of $151, that would mean $330 less take-home pay each month.


Stenner isn’t sure how much she would be required to pay for health insurance.


Although the governor’s proposal would require state employees to pay 12.6 percent of health insurance premiums, local governments could set the percentage higher or lower for their employees.


Stenner, 49, acknowledged that her health insurance is a good plan and that her payments are small.


“But we pay for it,” she said. “We’ve always paid for it.”


School district employees have over the years negotiated benefits and raises as a whole package, and employees have traded lower salaries for better benefits, she said.


Walker’s proposal would hold salaries down to the consumer price index.


“It’s highly unfair to force us to pay more, take away our right to negotiate and not let us get decent wages to offset these costs,” she said.


Stenner’s husband just retired, and they had planned to get by on her income and his Social Security. They hope he doesn’t have to go back to work.


Stenner said the proposal means she suddenly does not have as much discretionary income. But her job is a good-paying job, and her wages are higher because of the length of her employment—about 17 years—and the 2,050 hours she works a year.


She worries about others in her bargaining unit. An elementary school secretary’s wage, for example, is based on 1,684 hours a year, and athletic department secretaries are based on 1,178 hours.


“What about our single employees, or our single parents who are barely making it now? Suddenly, they have a 5.8 percent pay cut,” she said referring to proposed pension contributions. “How are they going to make ends meet?


“This is going to trickle down through the economy. I guess we’re not going to go to eat anymore, I guess we’re not going to the movies. The businesses are going to feel it.”


She predicted bankruptcies and foreclosures. The brunt of the financial burden is being put on the back of the middle class, she said.


“They aren’t even going to be ‘middle’ anymore. They’re going to be poor. A new class of the working poor. I am really worried about it.


“I need to be able to put money away,” she said. “You go through your life, you work hard, you try to improve your status and improve your life. You’re supposed to be able to afford a house and afford a car. … You work so hard and for so long in your life, and you can’t do those things.


“It’s just not right.”


Group power

Jennifer Drach, a second-grade teacher at Wilson Elementary School in Janesville, is a third-generation teacher. But if her collective bargaining rights are cut, she wonders if she would recommend the profession to her children.


“They’d go into a different profession entirely,” she said.


Drach’s biggest issue is not the money.


“Nobody gets in this for the money,” she said, adding that she routinely spends her own money in her classroom.


“For me, it’s about losing collective bargaining rights.”


Bargaining rights are important to influence working conditions.


“If we lose the power of the group, we lose all,” Drach said.


How can Walker suggest taking away 70 years of collective bargaining that has been successful here? she wondered.


Drach stressed that teacher pay is low because teachers have negotiated away more pay for better benefits. School officials were happy to do so because they paid less Social Security on salaries.


Drach has nine years of experience, seven of those in Los Angeles, with a master’s degree.


Her gross monthly salary is $2,817 for an annual total of $49,631.


She pays $43 a month of her total health insurance premium of $1,464, or about 3 percent.


Under Walker’s proposal, Drach would pay $2,879 toward her retirement annually or about $240 a month. She pays nothing now.


That would affect her lifestyle, but she said she is lucky: She is married and has a safety net. She and her husband could live on one salary.


But she worries about other workers, especially single mothers.


Drach protested in Madison the last three days and plans to travel there today, as well.


Three of her students want to be teachers.


“I just keep thinking about them, that they would do this for me,” she said.


The ‘whammy’

Walworth County union leaders met after work Wednesday to sift through the politics and protests in Madison for possible clues on how Gov. Scott Walker’s budget repair bill would affect local take home pay and the future of bargaining units.


The gathering wasn’t a union meeting. It was guys who have worked together for years kibbitzing about events in Madison that have shifted the mood of Wisconsin away from reveling in a Super Bowl championship to news coverage of angry hordes in Madison.


Facial expressions among the labor leaders showed how marathon conversations with fellow workers and wives about their dilemmas had taken a toll.


Mike Recklies, a correctional officer at the Walworth County Jail, came prepared with spreadsheets and a calculator to figure what he called the “whammy” on his take-home pay from Walker’s initiatives.


Bottom line: Recklies estimates his annual take-home pay would shrink by thousands of dollars.


Recklies gets a $43,000 annual salary and now pays $156 monthly for health insurance. He pays nothing toward his retirement, but the county contributes about $450.


If Walker’s proposals are enacted, Recklies would pay $249 a month toward retirement and $280 a month toward health insurance. That assumes county employees would pay 12.6 percent of health insurance premiums as is proposed for state employees. The county could set the percentage higher or lower for their employees.


Given those assumptions, Recklies’ monthly deductions would rise from $156 a month to $529 a month. When annualized, that’s about $4,400 less take-home.


Increased benefit costs would diminish the Recklies family quality of life, he said. His family would stop eating out, stop seeing movies, stop buying toys and videos. The loss of discretionary income among municipal county workers would mean local businesses would see drops in business, he said.


“We have to curtail all of our extracurriculars,” he said.



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