Teacher's union sues to block pension change

Tallahassee, FL – The Florida Education Association filed a lawsuit earlier this week in protest of several provisions in a new pension law requiring public workers to contribute three-percent of their pay to their retirement. As Sascha Cordner reports, the suit has expanded into a class action lawsuit with participants saying they are angry with state officials who enacted and endorsed what they are calling "unconstitutional legislation."

Florida Education Association President Andy Ford calls the three-percent contribution into state employees retirement benefits "a pay cut" handed down by the legislature and the Governor:

"This pay cut, to make up a budget shortfall on the backs of teachers, law enforcement officers, firefighters, and other state workers, is essentially an income tax levied on workers belonging to the Florida Retirement System. It's unfair and it breaks promises levied on these employees when they chose to work to improve our state."

That's why Ford says it's unconstitutional. He adds the same can be said for reducing the cost-of-living benefits of those employees, which is all part of what was filed on Monday in a Tallahassee Circuit Court.

Attorney in the Class Action Lawsuit Ron Meyer says the lawsuit ALSO alleges that Florida's law provides that the Florida Retirement System is one where employees do NOT have to contribute part of their salaries and describes it as a contractual obligation of the state.

"It's a contractual right! Think about it in terms of a mortgage, if you had a 30-year mortgage to purchase a house, would your lender 20-years in be able to say your house is now going to cost a you an extra 30-percent. That changes the whole deal, and that's what happened here. It changes the whole deal."

The lawsuit originally started with 11 plaintiffs that don't just include teachers and school employees. They also include a county solid waste worker, sheriff's deputies, and public hospital employees, who all joined the suit to represent members of their associations.

Maggie Vancol Pena, a Social Worker at Jackson Health System in Miami-Dade County, is one of them, representing members of the union SEIU Healthcare FLorida Local 1991.

She says on top of the 3 percent pay cut, many state employees have not had a raise in years and health insurance has sky-rocketed. She says the Governor has only ever worked in the private sector and needs to take a walk in their shoes.

"He needs to really walk in [the shoes of] police officers, social worker, a nurse the fire firefighters, the people that are serving the public, the people who are putting their lives at risk every day. He should not be trying to break them. He should at least try to help them do better."

John Park is President of the Central Florida Police Benevolent Association and a corporal at the Orange County sheriff's office in Orlando. He is hoping to be a plaintiff in the suit.

He wants to address statements the Governor has made regarding how Scott says it's unfair for state employees to not have to pay into their pensions, while those who don't have government jobs do.

Park says on behalf of firefighters and law enforcement officers, the main reason for that would be the danger levels are much different than people who do not have government jobs. He adds another reason:

"In the private sector, they get substantial more money in a lot of the various jobs that they do versus public employees who do not get paid every well up front, but they were promised retirement for the future and now that's being pulled out from underneath them."

Republican Senator Don Gaetz of Niceville is next in line to be President of the Florida Senate. He says if the lawsuit goes forward, elected state officials in the Democratic Party in many states should tremble in fear:

" because in every single state that is governed by a Democratic Governor or a Democratic legislature, public employees are required to contribute to their own retirement. So, apparently, this FEA lawsuit will cause tremendous consternation in the Democratic party."

But, though people, like FEA President Andy Ford, place some of the blame on the legislature, the class action lawsuit is actually against the Governor, Attorney General Pam Bondi, Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater, and John Miles, secretary of the Department of Management Services.

Miles runs the agency that oversees the Florida Retirement System Trust fund. Bondi, Atwater, and Scott are members of the State Board of Administration, which is responsible for overseeing the fund.

In a statement, Scott says asking state employees to pay a small percentage into their pensions is common sense and he has confidence the law is good for Floridians and will stand up in court.

The FEA also requested the court place all salary money collected for employees in an account, separate from the Florida Retirement System, while the case is still pending. FEA President Andy Ford says by putting the money into a separate account, the money can be returned to employees if they win the suit.

The hearing on the FEA's motion for that request is scheduled for Thursday, June 30th.