Op-Ed: Society’s Promise to Public Safety Workers goes Beyond Memorials

By Sean M. Smoot

ssmoot@pbpa.org

This week, perhaps unlike any other in recent history, has given us all cause to reflect on promises.

We have seen a nation fulfill its promise to bring justice to a terrorist. For many days, we will view images of the horrific attacks that occurred almost 10 years ago in New York, Washington, D.C., and Pennsylvania. And we will witness — again — promises kept by the brave police officers, firefighters and other public employees who can be seen running toward the explosions, smoke and destruction as others run away.

People who work in public safety take an oath — they make a promise — to serve and protect. This promise is universal. It is the same oath, the same promise made and kept every day in New York, L.A., Chicago, Springfield, Cairo and in the community where you live.

Whether it’s in response to a terrorist attack, a tornado, a felony or a flood, police officers, firefighters and other first responders run toward danger and often into disaster. Some of them are catastrophically injured keeping that promise. And some of them die.

Promises made and promises kept — that’s what makes everything else in America possible. We are free because others took an oath, promising to be there when we need them — to pull us from a burning car or out of the rubble, to pursue those who would steal or damage our property, to keep our streets safe and criminals incarcerated, to save our lives.

On Thursday in Springfield, the Illinois Police Memorial took place honoring the heroes who paid the ultimate price in keeping the promises they made. Next week, we will honor the fallen heroes of Illinois’ fire service. Promises made, promise kept.

In exchange for their devotion to all of us, we have promised to provide public safety workers — like all public employees — with fair pay and benefits. Benefits promised include security for those fortunate enough to retire and security for the families of those who don’t survive the perils of the job. The pension system that provides this security also prevents police officers and firefighters from getting Social Security benefits. Instead, they pay nearly 10 percent of their salary into their pension systems.

Further, nearly eight in 10 Illinois public employees are ineligible for Social Security. You read that right: Unlike every private sector worker in America, Illinois teachers, police and others don’t get Social Security. When they retire, their pension is all they have. It’s their life savings.

Their pensions are modest. At the end of a working life devoted to public service, an Illinois teacher, firefighter or librarian retires with an average pension of just $32,000 a year — and many receive much less.

They accrue that life savings, their pension, in part by paying for it themselves. In most cases, 8 percent or 9 percent of every public employee’s paycheck goes directly toward his or her retirement. It always has, faithfully and in full, even as the politicians time and again failed to make the contributions required by law.

Their employers, local governments and the state of Illinois, are supposed to pay their fair share, too. Cities, villages and the state do not pay any Social Security taxes for police and fire employees. Some have failed to keep that promise, running up a huge debt to our pension systems.

Now, instead of paying their share, politicians in Springfield propose to break that promise and cut the pensions of firefighters and police — along with teachers, nurses and every other public employee in the state.

What makes our country work is the value we place on public service. After all, isn’t the core responsibility of government to safeguard the lives and liberty of the people? The promises made and kept by police and firefighters are often venerated, especially in times of crisis or tragedy.

Our promise to public safety workers goes beyond memorial ceremonies.

Sadly, a number of state and local elected officials need to be reminded that for America to work and for our communities to thrive, promises made must be kept — all the time, not just in times of tragedy and disaster.

To our Springfield elected officials, who serve the people of the south suburbs, don’t cut the modest pensions these quiet heroes earn, pay into and depend on.

Sean Smoot is director of the Illinois Police Benevolent & Protective Association, which represents law enforcement on issues related to public safety and the impact of other policy and legislative action for its members. Reach him at ssmoot@pbpa.org.