For at least the past dozen or so years, not a single day has passed where I have not worried about New Jersey’s public pension system. I have frequently found myself unable to sleep thinking about what will happen to tens of thousands of public workers, teachers, and retirees if pension payments are not made.
For me and for many New Jersey residents, the significance of a pension cannot be overstated. About 28 years ago, EMTs carried my dad out of his home on a stretcher. As they were putting him into the ambulance, he called out to me, “Don’t worry about your mother. I took care of your mother.” And he had. Within months, my father lost his life to brain cancer and my mother was left alone, after nearly 50 years of marriage. Since then, my father’s public pension plan, along with social security, has supported my mom. She still lives in her home. She still has her garden. She still has her art studio. She still invites family over for dinner and parties. At nearly 97 years old, my mom is still independent. She lives life on her own terms and she can because my dad paid into his pension plan year after year and saved so that she would be okay.
Many years ago, I testified before the Benefits Review Task Force established by former governor Richard Codey and chaired by Phil Murphy. Following a series of hearings, the task force released a comprehensive report which made it clear: New Jersey must make its pension payments. Despite the dire warning signs, the payments were not made.
I met with Murphy again, about four years ago, when I was the New Jersey Director for CWA. Our first question of candidate Murphy was how he would handle the underfunded pension.
He told us, in no uncertain terms, “you have my commitment — my administration will make the payments to the pension system.”
You see, Murphy knew it was unjustifiable and insanely costly to skip our pension payments. He knew that people like my mom depend upon that pension. He knew that people like my dad sacrificed their whole working lives to provide for their loved ones should they pass away early.
When I learned that Murphy would, for the first time in 25 years, make the full pension payment in this year’s budget, I was nearly overcome with emotion. I found myself still in COVID-19 isolation, having barely seen my mother in over a year, with tears rolling down my face. And when the revenues came in stronger than expected, and I learned that the governor worked with the Legislature to add another $500,000,000 to our beleaguered public pension plans, I cried again.
You see, a public pension plan is not just a “difficult problem” to me and to hundreds of thousands of workers and retirees who have never once missed their payments into the plan. A pension is more than a retirement plan. It means keeping a home. It means being able to have a life after retirement. It means keeping families together in spaces where they have raised their children, held family dinners, and welcomed visitors.
Murphy has led on so many issues that have made our state a stronger, fairer and more desirable place to live for working- and middle-class families.
And he has done something else.
He is the first governor in 25 years who is meeting his obligations to retirees and their loved ones. Like my father, he’s taking care of my mother.
Hetty Rosenstein, a longtime labor advocate, is senior director for progressive coalitions and outreach for Gov. Phil Murphy's 2021 re-election campaign.