LINCOLN — Professional firefighters from some of Nebraska's larger cities asked state lawmakers Tuesday to change their retirement system, which they say provides only welfare-level benefits.
One retired firefighter in Grand Island worked more than 25 years before retiring from his $50,000-a-year post. He is now receiving a $1,300-per-month retirement benefit, which qualifies him for food stamps and welfare, said Scott Kuehl, president of the Grand Island firefighters union.
That public benefit, he said, is all he gets because firefighters are not eligible for Social Security.
“It's not working for him,” Kuehl said, adding that such retirees have a hard time landing a part-time job.
Kuehl was among firefighters' representatives testifying during an interim study hearing held by the Legislature's Retirement Systems Committee Tuesday. The firefighters were from the state's first-class cities — those with populations over 5,000, excluding Omaha and Lincoln.
About 300 firefighters from first-class cities fall under the defined contribution plan. It was created as part of a legislative compromise in 1984 that switched them from a defined benefit plan, like those for Omaha and Lincoln firefighters, which guarantees a certain pension payout.
Dave Engler, president of the Nebraska Professional Firefighters Association, said the 1984 “experiment” had failed.
Back then, Engler said firefighters were assured a defined contribution plan would provide “roughly equivalent” retirement benefits to a defined benefit plan. But instead of getting 50 percent of their salary, as under the old plan, firefighters are getting retirement payments in the $1,300-a-month range, or about 25 percent of their job salary.
He and others said not only are retirees struggling to make ends meet, but the plan also is forcing those nearing the minimum retirement age of 55 to work longer, jeopardizing public and firefighter safety. Young firefighters, they said, are also leaving jobs in smaller cities for better pay and benefits in larger cities.
One member of the Retirement Committee said he had a hard time feeling sorry for the firefighters' situation.
State Sen. Russ Karpisek of Wilber said a lot of self-employed people and volunteer firefighters might say the professional firefighters' retirement “looks pretty good,” even if it has been less than anticipated.
Contact the writer: 402-473-9584, firstname.lastname@example.org