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County hospital workers rip Preckwinkle's proposed pension fix

Wednesday, May 21, 2014
Chicago Sun-Times

Several dozen unionized Stroger Hospital employees descended on a Cook County board meeting Wednesday, expressing their displeasure with President Toni Preckwinkle’s pension-reform plan, which is expected to surface soon in Springfield.

As county hospital workers waited their turn to address the board, the echoes of an overflow crowd could be heard chanting “save our pensions” from a hallway outside the boardroom.

But by the time they were allowed to take the podium, Preckwinkle had ducked out of the meeting to attend a separate event. She later returned after the hospital workers were gone.

“I’m really disappointed that President Preckwinke left,” Elizabeth Lalasz, who said she is a registered nurse, told the board. “We’re not going to stop making this very public that we oppose what’s going to happen and what it’s going to mean for our patients.”

Hospital staffers said a reduction in benefits – as called for under the pension – will discourage experienced doctors, nurses and support staff from continuing to work at John H. Stroger Jr. Hospital of Cook County. The hospital treats many low-income patients and many decided against higher pay elsewhere because they care about social justice, the workers said.

“You can’t just run it on the cheap. I would not be where I’m at without experienced people . . . teaching me,” Lalasz said. “The reason I decide to work at Stroger Hospital is because I don’t think anyone should fall through the cracks.”

Later, during a news conference, Preckwinkle offered a reason for why she left: “I made a commitment long ago to go to memorial service for the indigent,” Preckwinkle said. “I spoke at the memorial service . . . That is why I wasn’t there.

When asked what her thoughts on the workers concerns were, Preckwinkle said she was obligated to revamp county pensions.

“In 2034 it runs out of money. And then there’s no pension for anybody,” she said.

The county’s pension accounts — which are about 54 percent funded — are not as severely underfunded as the city’s.

Preckwinkle’s plan, which currently has the backing of Teamsters and the SEIU Local 73, is not considered as severe as a city pension plan pushed by Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

Generally speaking, the county proposal will lengthen the years employees must work, reduce cost-of-living pay increases for retirees and require employees to pay more into the pension fund.

While workers will have to pay more, those who were hired by the county before 2010 will still be eligible for compounding cost-of-living increases — a detail pension hawks have criticized. Workers will also receive increased medical benefits, according to an outline of the plan.

The plan must be approved by the General Assembly before it can take effect. But it does have the backing of two powerful Chicago Democrats: House Speaker Michael Madigan and Senate Majority Leader John Cullerton.

Preckwinkle said she will be in Springfield on Thursday to meet with leaders from both parties.

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