The Associated Press
SALEM It was only a matter of time before public employees smashed the record for most retirements in a year.
In figures released Tuesday, more than 7,700 teachers, police officers and other public workers have submitted forms to retire in 2003, eclipsing the single-year record of 6,843 retirements for all of 1999.
And it's only May. By December, the record should be obliterated as employees race to beat legislative changes in the state pension system.
The Legislature and Gov. Ted Kulongoski have overhauled Public Employees Retirement System laws this year, trying to close a $17 billion shortfall in the system. They have updated the life expectancy tables used to compute PERS benefits, suspended cost-of-living increases for recent retirees, and made other changes that will slow or stall the growth of members' PERS accounts for several years.
PERS officials have said the changes could reduce benefits for some future retirees by 25 percent or more.
Some of the changes will begin taking effect July 1, and the new retirees say they are getting out now so the changes won't affect their retirement checks.
"If you'd have asked me in September, I would have said, 'Oh, I'll teach five more years,' " said Irene Barnard, 56, who is retiring after teaching in Newberg for 34 years.
Some school districts and state and local governments say they will save money on payroll because longtime employees will be replaced by less-experienced, lower-paid workers. But those employers will be losing some of their most experienced and knowledgeable people.
Public employees say they feel unfairly penalized by legislators trying to address concerns about the high benefits some retirees receive.
PERS reported this year that more than 2,300 retirees get at least as much in benefits as they made in working salary.
"We are impacting 100 percent of the people for problems that are being blamed on 10 percent of the people," said BethAnne Darby, a lobbyist for the Oregon Education Association, the state's largest teachers union.
Officials expect retirements to reach 8,000 to 10,000 before the year is out. At the start of this year, about 40,000 PERS members were eligible to retire. That's about one-fifth of the 215,000 people who are active PERS members or who previously worked for a PERS employer but haven't yet retired.
For many workers retiring now, it is a bittersweet decision. Although they have looked forward to retirement, many said they love their jobs and want to keep working, but they don't think it makes financial sense to wait and have their benefit checks shaved.
"It would all be easier if we hated our jobs," said Karen Madden, 62, who's retiring from the state Commission for the Blind.