Cocoa Holloway-Blankenship isn’t your typical pension rallier.
“I’m only 36, but my back hurts like I’m 60,” she said.
Holloway-Blankenship drives retired military veterans around during the day and loads UPS trucks at night in Raleigh, N.C. She is also a member of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters.
Holloway-Blankenship was one of the many hundreds at a Teamsters rally Thursday — including a group from Kansas City — protesting in front of the Capitol against the 2014 Multiemployer Pension Reform Act. The act could cut thousands of retirees’ pensions.
“I wasn’t born here, my mom brought me here from West Africa, but I know you have to pay taxes to support the economy, and if you’re working, your money supports your community,” the UPS worker said. “If I’m doing something positive, you need to give me what I’m due.”
Many multiemployer companies fall under the pension act, but the Central States Pension Fund is one of the first to consider applying the cuts, according to the Pension Rights Center. The fund, which covers 400,000 people, with a little more than half of them retired, is set to be out of money in 10 years.
Central States retirees expect to hear their fate in the first week of May. That is when mediator Kenneth Feinberg is expected to rule on whether the pension fund’s proposed cuts are legal under the 2014 law.
“I’ll lose everything,” said Pete Lomonaco, a retired Georgia truck driver and Teamster. “I’m 75 years old, and I’m going to lose my house.”
Lomonaco said he is expecting to lose 61 percent of his pension. John Wilkinson, 58, said he’ll lose 43 percent. Del Viehland, a Missouri Teamster, said he knows retirees who could lose 70 to 75 percent of their pensions. Ray Brofford, a 73-year-old retiree from Columbus, Ohio, said he’ll go from $2,600 a month to $1,289.
“This is devastating to me and other retirees,” Brofford said. “People can’t buy medication. They can’t afford to go to nursing homes or repair their house.”
Many of the retirees at the rally worked for 30 years or more and put money into their accounts all that time. Now they feel cheated by the government.
“After you’ve worked for all those years, your feet are cut out from under you,” said Mike Waters, a 63-year-old Illinois retiree. “You’ve worked all your life, and your pension is your lifeboat, and they’re puncturing holes in it and changing laws.”
There are many contributing factors behind the wobbly condition of the Central States Pension Fund. Since 1980, more than 10,000 employers have stopped contributing to the fund because they went bankrupt or went out of business, according to the fund’s website. Other businesses have pulled out of contributing to the fund.
At the same time, the number of retirees is steadily rising.
With a large portion of the workforce rapidly headed toward retirement or already retired, the Central States fund can only give out so much money before it gives out more than it takes in.
“We understand that these proposed benefit reductions are painful for our participants,” Thomas Nyhan, executive director of the Central States Pension Fund, said in a statement. “Nobody wants to reduce benefits, but the simple fact is that this rescue plan is the only way to save the fund and ensure that we are able (to) pay benefits in the future.”
While senators and representatives were present at the rally, many retirees said they felt they weren’t being heard by their lawmakers and were only getting lip service.
“Some try to pacify me,” Viehland said. “That’s why I’m here, to talk to them face to face.”
Some lawmakers, including Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, are working to address the problem, but without much momentum.
James Hoffa, president of the Teamsters union, said he is working on the passage of legislation to help his members. Legislation, he said, “will help us address the problem. But the biggest thing is to defeat Central States’ proposal. That’s what we have to defeat.”