BISMARCK - Members of North Dakota Teamsters are rallying around legislation meant to stabilize their pension fund, which is approaching insolvency within the decade.
Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., visited Bismarck Tuesday, Nov. 21, to drum up grassroots support for the Butch Lewis Act, of which she is a co-sponsor.
The Central States Pension Fund, which benefits about 2,000 Teamsters in North Dakota, as well as other states, took a hit as a result of the 2008 recession, along with having more retired than active members.
Heitkamp called the potential 20 percent to as much as 80 percent declines in pensions an "injustice."
"This has to get fixed," she said.
A Mandan story
Tony Goetzfried, 70, of Mandan, started driving trucks and served as the local Teamsters business agent for 20 years. He said he and his fellow workers gave up pay raises to pay into the fund. As a result, it was lucrative and had a lot of money for years.
"You did the smart thing," Heitkamp said.
But things changed, and despite the bailout of Wall Street's financial institutions, which the union says squandered their pensions, nothing was paid back into the fund.
Driving in Fargo
Donna Mattson, of Fargo, said her husband worked as a UPS driver for 30 years.
"He worked hard and earned his pension. He also gave up a great deal to be able to do his job. He missed out on many of our kids' basketball and soccer games because he worked so much," she said.
Then, in 2013, Mattson's husband was diagnosed with progressive supranuclear palsy, requiring physical, speech and occupational therapies, as well as in-home nursing, which Mattson said can cost $26 per hour once Medicare benefits run out. She said without the pension there is a chance they may not be able to afford to stay in their home.
Retirement in Rugby
Before his 30-year career as a UPS driver, Wayne Odegaard, of Rugby, was a science teacher. But UPS offered to double his salary and give him the best retirement in the industry, so he took the job despite the long hours that came with it.
"It's a constant stress on my wife and me, especially since I have arthritis, wear braces on both ankles and have three stents after a recent heart attack, which can be expensive to manage," Odegaard said of the pension fund's uncertainty.
At age 72 and with his health problems, he doesn't think he'd be able to find another job to support he and his wife. They could be forced to sell their home and rely on government assistance.
Mark Rothschiller, of Bismarck, drove for 27½ years for UPS, also missing his kids' plays and sports games.
"I've had five back surgeries and other rotator cuff surgeries, which forced me to retire early," said Rothschiller, adding that many of his health issues resulted from the labor intensive nature of his job.
His doctor told him he can't work anymore and, rather than traveling with his wife and grandkids as they had planned, he has to worry about how to cover the medical bills, he said.
"Disability and Social Security help, but it doesn't cover everything," he said.
Call for solvency
The Butch Lewis Act would implement the sale of Treasury bonds to provide long-term solvency, as well as allocate $20 billion in federal funding over 10 years, so that union members would continue to receive the benefits for which they bargained, Heitkamp said.
Heitkamp said the legislation, which she and the other co-sponsors hope to attach to a larger spending bill or other end-of-year legislation, would help this and other pension funds into the future.
"It's going to require an influx in cash," she said.
The legislation has the support of the Central States Pension Fund and the investment community, according to Heitkamp, who said the United Mine Workers union has also vowed its support, which she hopes will bring more lawmakers' on board.
"We need to have a few Republicans here," she said.
Heitkamp said she thinks the 48-member Democratic Caucus is behind the bill, but 12 more votes would be needed. She called on the Teamsters to go to lawmakers such as Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, and Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., who had spoken in support of the pensioners during a rally in April 2016.
There are more than 1,000 retired Teamsters locally, along with 502 active members and 705 previous members that may no longer work in the industry but met years of service requirements to draw a pension upon retirement. Present and past Teamsters affected were employed locally by the SuperValu warehouse, Holsum Bakery, Kemps and Deans Foods.