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OP-ED: We keep our promises, the State of Texas should too

Tanisha Woods
Correctional Officer 5 and President of AFSCME Texas Corrections Local 3920

Where I come from, your word is your bond. You keep your promises and fulfill your obligations. I’m a correctional officer. For 12 years, it’s been my job to keep people safe. I enforce the rules, keep order, and help ensure that when inmates come back into our community, they come back on better terms than they left. Our pay is modest, and our work is downright dangerous. In return for our service, the state promises a secure pension – a retirement we can count on. This is challenging work, and that’s why it ticks us off when politicians in Austin don’t keep their promises.

What went wrong? Our workers still pitch in our fair share to the pension fund with every paycheck. But the State of Texas was supposed to be fulfilling their obligations to make the fund solvent too, and when increased funding was necessary, they came up short. Now, there’s a $15 billion shortfall.

State employees have done our part. To keep the retirement system stable over the years, workers have accepted increased contribution rates, an increased retirement age, and unfriendly changes to our benefit calculations.

Senate Bill 321 seeks to do two things. First, Texas would finally address the unfunded liability by committing to $510M per year to make the fund solvent — that’s a good thing. Second, they’re scrapping our reliable classic pension plans (“defined benefits”) for a more risky “cash balance” plan for new employees — that’s just nonsense.

While I appreciate that the Texas Legislature is starting to do its part to fund Texas pensions, there’s absolutely no reason to force anyone into an inherently more risky cash balance plan.

We fully support the commitment of $510 million per year to ERS to cover the state’s obligations and make the fund actuarially sound, but introducing a cash balance plan isn’t needed to bring the plan to actuarial soundness. Texas workers deserve better than our state — our bosses — giving us our due with one hand and taking away what’s promised with the other.

A cash balance plan is all about investment risk. You can’t plan for retirement when your final benefit is unknown, dependent on the stock market’s performance. That exposes workers to a lot of insecurity, anxiety, and financial risk.

A defined benefit plan, what we have now, is simple. Employees contribute a portion of their paycheck every month into a state fund, and the state guarantees an exact return for your retirement. It’s a sum you can count on that doesn’t rely on the whims of Wall Street. And if you care about having a high-quality state workforce, Texas needs this benefit to compete for good workers. Adding uncertain benefits to the low pay will make it harder to hire and keep staff, especially at the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, which is already woefully understaffed.

Correctional officers have kept up their end of the bargain, and the State of Texas should work as well. It’s time for politicians in Austin to fulfill their obligations.

The Texas power failure and COVID-19 pandemic have been hard on all of us. For correctional officers, that risk increases even more. Poor conditions at state facilities have gotten workers and inmates sick. It’s a hard job. Few folks understand our actual day-to-day. But we do it with pride because of our duty to our community and a promise from our state.

We’re calling on the Texas Legislature to fulfill their obligations – pass a bill that pays down unfunded liabilities and maintains our current defined-benefit pension structure. It’s time for Texas to honor our public servants with a retirement they can count on.

Tanisha Woods, Correctional Officer 5 and President of AFSCME Texas Corrections Local 3920