School employees protest proposed benefit cuts today at statehouse

School bus drivers, grounds keepers, secretaries and other retirees marched on the Ohio Statehouse on Wednesday, loudly protesting planned cuts to their public pensions.

A few hundred protesters organized by the Ohio Association of Public School Employees voiced opposition to pending bills that call for cuts to the cost of living adjustment given to retirees in the School Employees Retirement System. Pension officials say the changes are needed to shore up the system finances.

Currently, SERS retirees receive a flat 3 percent COLA starting on the first anniversary of retirement. The system wants to eliminate it in 2018, 2019 and 2020 and then tie it to inflation with a cap of 2.5 percent in subsequent years. Retirees would be eligible for a COLA on their fourth anniversary.

Related: Ohio teachers lose cost of living adjustments in their pensions

Related: Retired police and firefighters could see changes to health care benefits

“Nobody likes that these changes must be made, but they are a fair and necessary solution to SERS’ immediate and long-term financial challenges,” said SERS spokesman Tim Barbour in a written statement. “Although decisions like this are hard and unpopular, we are committed to doing what is right and necessary to protect the pension fund.”

Lebanon resident Mark Bailey, who retired in January 2015 after 28 years as a maintenance worker for Kings Local Schools, said SERS needs to find another fix.

“I’ve only collected two cost of living adjustments. When you don’t get a raise, it limits your spending power and ability to pay your bills,” said Bailey, 59, who works a part-time job to supplement is $2,000-a-month pension. “It hurts your ability to make purchases, large and small.”

SERS represents about 292,000 school workers in Ohio, including janitors, cafeteria workers and secretaries. Members earn about $24,000 a year and their pension benefits average $1,184 per month.

The proposed benefit cut is the latest round facing Ohio’s public pension systems, which collectively have $195 billion invested on behalf of 1.9 million workers, retirees and beneficiaries. The State Teachers Retirement System of Ohio voted to indefinitely suspend the cost of living adjustment for its retirees and the Ohio Police & Fire Pension Fund is considering cuts to its health care program for retirees.

The benefit changes come just five years after Ohio imposed the biggest cuts in state history to its public pension systems.

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