In a federal courtroom this week, Detroit’s 30,000 current and retired city workers are taking their last swing at avoiding a bankruptcy that the city’s unelected emergency manager vows will bring pension cuts for everyone. Kevyn Orr, the emergency manager, has angered the judge by repeatedly evading questions on the stand throughout the eligibility hearing. But that’s nothing compared to the frustration he brought out of retirees earlier this month when he announced they have until mid-November to find new health insurance, because the city-provided plans will evaporate as of January 1, 2014. ThinkProgress spoke to three retired Detroit workers about health care cuts, pension cuts, and what bankruptcy would mean for them.
Brendan Milewski, 34, had been a Detroit firefighter for just shy of a dozen years when a building collapsed on him and seven other men from his crew on August 13, 2010. “We all survived, but three of us had to retire from our injuries,” he said in an interview. The accident left him paralyzed from the chest down. “Me and my wife had a nice house in the suburbs, we were planning for a family, and this kind of threw a wrench in everything.”
The accident didn’t dampen Milewski’s love of the job. “When you take a job as a firefighter you’re pretty much accepting the fact that you’re taking a couple years off your life,” he said, not to mention missed holidays and missed ballgames. He spoke of those sacrifices with pride and said more than once that he’d go back on the job tomorrow if he could.
Ask Milewski about the bankruptcy plans and the dignity in his voice turns to indignation. “We accepted those sacrifices on the understanding there’d be something for us at the end. When you start taking away those promises that there’d be something at the end, what kind of loyalty does that breed to stay in a profession?” When he talks to young would-be firemen now, he warns them: “You want to be a Detroit firefighter that bad, you better have a backup plan.”
The bankruptcy fight has reset Milewski’s whole outlook on his life. “The big wakeup call was the letter we got in early October that said they’re terminating our health insurance policy in January,” he said, referring to the announcement earlier this month that the city intends to replace his current health insurance with a subsidy check of up to $200 a month for him to buy his own plan. “A comparable plan to what I have now would cost me and my wife about $15,000 a year,” Milewski said. “So that subsidy doesn’t really do shit for us.”
Downshifting the level of insurance he buys isn’t an option. “Being a paraplegic comes with a whole fun bag of tricks that able-bodied people don’t have to deal with. I’m looking at a life or death situation.” He described his current regimen of physical therapy as “boot camp for spinal cord injury patients.” The program would cost $3,600 each week out of pocket, and then there are physicians and specialist visits on top of the therapy. Milewski’s tax-free disability pension pays $2,800 a month now, which will drop to $2,100 per month in about a decade under the current rules. Orr’s proposed cuts would leave the Milewskis leaning even harder on his wife’s income from her hairdressing business. “If it wasn’t for her, I’d be putting up a for-sale sign,” Milewski said.
Another firefighter named David Allen, 50, caught a spinal injury when a ceiling caved in on him in the middle of a call on January 17 of this year. “If I could go back tomorrow, I’d go back with no hesitation,” he said. “My mind tells me I can but my body lets me know, you cannot.” Allen still has the use of his legs, and he’s focused on extensive physical and occupational therapy. He hopes to graduate soon from a walker to a cane. Like Milewski, he’s proud of his work and knew what he was risking taking the job. “When I came on the job, they tell you, take ten years off your life,” he said quietly. “Firemen, when we get older we have a lot of health issues, and that’s when we need our healthcare and pensions and things that were promised to us.”
Allen isn’t mad about what fighting fires did to his back, but he’s frustrated that the city is trying to put its financial troubles on his shoulders. “A lot of people think that we get social security and we do not. The only thing I get is my pension. If they cut my pension that’s all I have,” Allen said. The 20-year veteran’s $3,000 monthly disability pension will drop to about $2,300 in another five years even before any cuts imposed in bankruptcy. “They want to pay pennies on the dollar to the people they owe money to,” he said, “and they put us in the same boat as any other debtor.”
Allen says he has two children, one 14 and one 16. “My name is Daddy-I-Need,” he adds, chuckling. He used to coach his daughter’s volleyball teams before that ceiling fell in and those vertebrae had to be fused. He holds out hope that her on-court prowess will bring scholarships, but with the city’s bankruptcy threatening to throw his entire financial security out the window, “it’s looking like it might be a decision between health care and paying for her to go to college.”
Gwendolyn Beasley, 67, said she faces a similarly heartbreaking choice if Orr gets what he wants. The end of the retiree health care system she was promised over her 34 years as a cataloguing clerk in the Detroit public library system means that her prescriptions will triple in cost. “At my age I’m taking more pills than I care to,” she said. “I’m at the point now where it’s, OK, do I pay the $60 for these pills – and I have four name-brand prescriptions – or do I cut back on food?”
Doctor visits are rising from $10 to $25, dental and vision plans are disappearing entirely, and deductibles are jumping into the thousands of dollars. After taxes, Beasley’s pension leaves her $1,100 per month. Unlike public safety employees, civil servants like Beasley paid into Social Security throughout their careers, so Beasley gets another $1,000 each month. Her mortgage is paid off – “thank God it’s free and clear!” she laughed – but with Orr promising to cut pension payments if the bankruptcy proceeds, and property taxes and living expenses rising every year, she’s not sure she can make ends meet. “I really wonder if I will be able to maintain my bills for keeping up my house and for food,” Beasley said. “We’re just sitting here not knowing when it’s going to happen, what it’s going to be, how much we’re going to have to sacrifice.”
“I don’t see why we should,” she said, suddenly showing the same anger that flashed in the firemen’s voices when I asked about pension cuts. “We worked a certain amount of years, you made a promise to us, a contractual agreement, and it’s what we’ve been planning on. Over the years when we worked we took wage freezes, we made concessions,” Beasley said. “We’ve already sacrificed. Now at this age you want us to give up even more?”