Awaiting consensus

Pub date May 31, 2011

Mayor Ed Lee’s pension reform proposal was unveiled May 24 with support from some of those who helped develop it, including investment banker Warren Hellman, Rebecca Rhine from the Municipal Executives Association, San Francisco Chamber of Commerce head Steve Falk, and San Francisco Labor Council Executive Director Tim Paulson.

The plan would dramatically alter the way the city manages employee retirement benefits, starting July 2012, while exempting employees who earn less than $50,000. Lee described it as “serious,” “comprehensive,” and a plan that “reflects consensus.”

Already the legislation to place it on the fall ballot has secured the cosponsorship of Board President David Chiu and Sup. John Avalos, rival candidates for mayor. Other mayoral candidates also offered their support, including former Sup. Bevan Dufty and City Attorney Dennis Herrera.

But there is one notable exception to the support for this plan, a party that has been at the negotiating table where it was crafted: Service Employees International Union Local 1021, which represents about half of the city’s 26,000 employees. The union claims the plan disproportionately affects 500 SEIU members, who are mostly women and people of color and already took large pay cuts last year to avoid layoffs.

Avalos, who described Lee’s proposal as “a sensible approach” and “the right way to go,” has said that if SEIU’s concerns aren’t adequately addressed, he’ll withdraw his sponsorship.

“I’d like to get to a consensus, but if we don’t and 10,000 union workers don’t sign on, I’m going to take my name off as a sponsor,” Avalos said. “We have to find ways to pay for pension benefits without decimating jobs and social services.”

Lee’s measure also didn’t win over Public Defender Jeff Adachi, who claims the proposal won’t make deep enough or fast enough cost savings in the next few years, so he will continue gathering signatures to place a rival measure on the ballot.

So rather than the consensus product Lee hoped the whole city family would be able to convince voters to support, it’s looking like pension reform could again be a divisive issue and one that spills over into this year’s mayor’s race.

Chiu thanked “our brothers and sisters from the labor community” when Lee announced his pension measure, noting that “each city worker that makes more than $50,000 would have to give thousands every year.” He supports the pension deal and hopes SEIU will eventually back it. Avalos and Sen. Leland Yee, another mayoral candidate, seem to be waiting for SEIU to sign on before offering their full support.

Mayoral spokesperson Christine Falvey told us that Lee views SEIU’s concerns as separate from the pension reform proposal. “He appreciates SEIU’s input in the pension reform talks and has committed to sitting down with them and trying to resolve this issue.”

Then there’s Adachi, who helped qualify Measure B, a 2010 pension reform proposal that united labor and city leaders in opposition. He continues to gather signatures to qualify a competing pension measure, needing about 50,000 signatures by early July unless Lee amends his plan to secure greater cost savings in less time.

“My focus is on this issue,” Adachi said, praising Lee’s efforts at achieving consensus. “But is this going to solve this problem so we don’t have to come back within two to three years? It comes down to a math problem.”

Adachi says Lee’s plan doesn’t adequately address the city’s need to save money now.

“The stress period is really in the next four years, so my hope is that the mayor’s proposal could be strengthened,” Adachi said, noting that his proposal yields $90 to $144 million in annual savings, compared to $60 to $90 million annually under Lee’s plan.

“SEIU is right that Mayor Lee’s proposal is inequitable,” Adachi added, noting that Measure B was criticized for being unfair to lower-income workers. “That’s why my new proposal increases pension contribution rates in $10,000 graduations. But under Lee’s plan, a person who earns $100,000 contributes the same rate as someone who makes $50,000.”

He criticized Lee’s plan for requesting only modest increases from safety workers. “Police and fire cost two to three times as much as everyone else’s retirement. They pay 17 percent of what’s in the fund and take out 36 percent. So that means SEIU folks are subsidizing the costs of safety workers’ retirement.”

Adachi acknowledged it would be better to have one measure everyone can support. “But I don’t agree that we should put ineffective reform on the ballot,” he said.

Adachi took a lead role on the issue in 2010 when he qualified Measure B mostly with backing from a few wealthy sponsors, including venture capitalist Michael Moritz, a financial supporter of Republican Ohio Gov. John Kasich and the Ohio Republican Party. Adachi took lots of political heat for the move, but he shrugs off the criticisms.

“It comes down to making sure people understand the issue,” he said. “A year ago, no one was acknowledging that it was a problem, but now everyone does. I’m hoping the board strengthens the proposal. It’s going to take supervisors really looking at this to see if works, not just jumping on the bandwagon.”

According to the Department of Human Resources, Lee’s plan would yield an estimated savings of $800 million to $1 billion over 10 years, with the bulk coming from increased employee retirement fund contributions of up to 6 percent for future and current employees. The proposal raises the retirement age from 62 to 65 for most city workers and from 55 to 58 for public safety workers. It also imposes caps on pensions for new employees.

Lee’s proposal must now make its way through the Rules Committee and win the approval of the full board by July 12, the deadline for supervisors to submit charter amendments. According to the Department of Human Resources, 89 percent of San Francisco’s 26,000 city workers earn more than $50,000. That means only 3,000 city workers fall below the $50,000 cut-off that exempt them from paying extra, under Lee’s plan.

But Larry Bradshaw, a bargaining unit member of SEIU 1021, said that members who make slightly more than that threshold will face pay cuts under the plan, on top of the pay cuts they took last year to avoid being laid off by Mayor Gavin Newsom.

For certified nursing assistants, the shift would amount to a roughly $12,000 annual pay cut, Bradshaw said. Security guards would face an estimated $5,000 per year cut, and clerical workers could face anywhere from $1,000 to $11,000 per year.

These workers faced getting fired and rehired at lower-paid classifications to make up for a revenue shortfall, but the union reached an agreement to stave off the worst pay cuts for those “de-skilled” employees by imposing a one percent across-the-board cut for all members in order to restore the salary cuts.

As SEIU workers take the pay cut to fund pensions, he said union members won’t be able to continue subsidizing the salaries of these deskilled workers.

“So we’re not going to have that option of asking our members to keep funding these workers who have taken this 20 percent pay cut,” he said. “And these are primarily women and people of color.”

But Sup. Sean Elsbernd and other supporters of the pension deal say the plight of these workers is an unrelated issue. “They aren’t a pension issue, so wouldn’t it be more appropriate to discuss them in the collective bargaining context?”

Elsbernd believes Lee’s measure is “fair and equitable,” partly because employees’ pension contributions would be reduced in boom years when tax revenue and stock market gains swell the city’s coffers.

“But Jeff Adachi is throwing a big roll of the legal dice,” Elsbernd said. He noted that city employees have long paid 7.5 percent toward their pensions. “But now, along come two pension reform plans that both challenge that notion.

“And every case in California shows you have to provide a commensurate benefit to change that kind of right,” he continued, arguing that Lee’s proposal is more legally sound because it lowers employees’ contributions during boom years. “So the $60 million that our plan would save is a hell of a lot more secure than the $90 million Jeff claims his plan would save.”

Sup. David Campos has yet to take a position on Lee’s plan, but hopes there is a way to address legitimate concerns about lower-income workers. “There’s no question that we have to do something about pension reform,” he said. “I don’t know if there’s a perfect proposal. But I’m especially intrigued by Mayor Lee’s plan. It recognizes that low-wage workers should not be expected to contribute at a higher rate than higher-wage workers. But we have to put the mayor’s proposal in the context of what else is happening, which is why SEIU’s de-skilling concerns are legitimate.” Campos credited Adachi for highlighting pension reform. “My hope is that we can come up with something that we can all be supportive of, where the mayor and Jeff’s proposals are combined. And while we have to be careful that the balance that has been constructed is maintained, this allows for a dialogue at the board, and for Jeff to be involved, so we can come up with a unified proposal. Because if we are going to address pension reform, we need to do so with a united front.”