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State correctional officers earn their pensions

By C.J. SULLIVAN

Publication: The Day

Published January 26. 2014 4:00AM

I'm a 20-year correction officer working in a dangerous environment that intrigues many but is experienced by few. So you can understand my frustration when I get outside the walls of a state prison and hear a steady stream of one-sided conversation about my overly generous retirement benefits or how much I'm costing taxpayers.

Mine is not a job that many aspire to. In fact, many do not even complete the 20 years of service needed to receive a full pension. (It's now 25 years after the most recent state employee concession agreement.) If you last 20 or more years, it is almost a given that you will experience a co-worker's dying due to illness, stress or suicide.

It is a job that can change you profoundly; it can be life altering or life ending at times. It is not a normal 9-5 job as in the private sector, in most cases. The prison environment means long hours and mandatory overtime, resulting in personal hardship on employees and their families. It is a job that requires a heightened level of sacrifice and commitment that one can not fully comprehend unless you experience it from inside the walls that contain you.

Working in a state prison can be rewarding and it can be dangerous. It requires a tremendous amount of training and skill. One never knows what each day may bring and often the routine can turn into a situation that average people cannot comprehend.

I'm not looking for anyone's pity. Nor am I saying I deserve a secure retirement more than anyone else. I'm just looking to set the record straight.

State employees are not the cause of this state's financial woes and should not be the answer for them either. We're not hedge fund managers or bankers. We didn't cause the economy to tank. Yet we have paid billions of dollars in concessions in order for lawmakers to attempt to balance budgets, improve the economy and help the citizens of Connecticut. We've given up our raises on multiple occasions, we're paying more for our health insurance and we've agreed to lower pension benefits for succeeding generations of state workers.

So how is it we have shared in the sacrifice (unlike the wealthy and the big corporations), and yet are routinely portrayed as villains? The fact that monies that should have gone into retirement have been disbursed elsewhere by the recklessness of previous politicians should not make us scapegoats.

It bothers me that we as state employees are unfairly categorized as individuals who are overpaid and receive lavish monetary pension amounts in comparison to the private sector. As hazardous duty employees, we contribute to our pensions at a rate of 4 percent and upwards for new tiers, not the 2 percent rate that various comments made by lawmakers would imply.

Becoming a state worker is a choice and a way to provide a living, support a family and create a future. Pensions are part of the program, as they should be for every American but sadly, are not. Attacking my right to a secure retirement only erodes the opportunity to achieve and complete the American Dream. Making me poorer isn't going to make anyone else richer, other than the folks who are leading the charge against state workers.

We have worked for our pensions and fulfilled our terms of employment. We, as do our families, rely on these pensions that we built on dedication, hard work and sacrifice for the planned retirement years we worked so hard to achieve. It is unfair to be critical of our life choices and what we receive for fulfilling our commitment to public service.

State government has a commitment to its employees, and the services we provide, to properly fund a pension system built on the fruits of our labor. It's the right thing to do and it's good for the economy, too. Studies show that real pension plans like ours support jobs and generate economic activity along Connecticut's Main Streets.

I do not think this is a private sector vs. state worker issue, despite the best efforts of many politicians and the media. At the end of the day, we are all working citizens living in communities around the state, taxpayers with a vested interest in each other's quality of life. Fiscal responsibility by our lawmakers will allow all the citizens of Connecticut who work hard and plan accordingly to walk the same path to success and retirement, together in harmony.

State Correction Officer C.J. Sullivan works at the York Correctional Institution in Niantic. He is a union steward for AFSCME Local 1565.

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