Heitkamp: Fighting for North Dakota workers and their pensions

Last November, I held a rally alongside nearly 100 North Dakota workers, retirees, and their families in Bismarck. One of those who spoke to the crowd was Donna Mattson.For over 30 years, Donna's husband, Mike, worked long and demanding hours as ...
Heidi Heitkamp

Last November, I held a rally alongside nearly 100 North Dakota workers, retirees, and their families in Bismarck. One of those who spoke to the crowd was Donna Mattson.

For over 30 years, Donna's husband, Mike, worked long and demanding hours as a UPS driver in Fargo. He was a reliable employee, and like so many dedicated North Dakotans, he was committed to providing for their children's future. Instead of taking extra pay, Mike did the sensible thing and chose to provide long-term security for his family by saving for his retirement through his employee pension plan.

Today, Mike has a progressive supranuclear palsy, a degenerative disease that requires expensive home care and costly physical, occupational and speech therapies. Now retired and facing steep medical expenses, he and Donna need his pension to help supplement their monthly Social Security checks.

But Mike's pension could soon disappear, meaning the couple would no longer be able to afford to stay in their home- a house that was carefully modified to accommodate Mike's worsening disability. Without their complete retirement savings, Donna would need to consider taking a part-time job to make ends meet, even though Mike relies on her to be his 24-hour caretaker. She doesn't know how they would survive.

This situation is no fault of their own. Mike is one of 2,000 North Dakotans and 400,000 members across the country that have paid into the Central States Pension Plan. Many of their promised retirements are now in jeopardy after the economic downturn and a lack of proper federal oversight led to poor investment returns for the funds.

Congress can bail out Wall Street, but it can't step up for these hard-working American men and women when they're pushed into a tough spot? That's just wrong. Congress needs to reward hard work and make sure that workers and retirees get the retirement security they paid into to protect themselves and their families.

Folks like Mike followed the rules for decades while working jobs that exacted heavy tolls on their bodies, expecting their hard-earned savings to be there for them in retirement. Ripping away savings from Mike and Donna isn’t fair, and Congress is not going to walk away from this obligation on my watch.

To prevent devastating pension cuts, I helped introduce the Butch Lewis Act- named after Teamster Butch Lewis, a lifelong champion for workers and the pensions they deserve. The legislation would provide financing to put failing pension plans back on solid ground and would prevent a single dollar of cuts to benefits retirees have rightly earned. Additionally, it would put effective safeguards in place to keep pension plans strong, so they'll be there when today's workers eventually leave the job.

And just a few days ago, I was appointed to a new, bipartisan committee tasked with solving the pension crisis, part of the overall budget compromise Congress passed earlier in February.

Soon, I'll be working with 16 of my Republican and Democratic colleagues in the U.S. Senate and House to finally address the solvency problems facing Central States, as well as other U.S. pension funds. This Committee isn’t the immediate, permanent solution I hoped for, but it will force Congress to address the escalating pension crisis– and I’ll push for the Butch Lewis Act to be the solution.

The government has delayed a resolution on this issue for far too long, and I'll continue to fight to make sure Congress delivers this fix and shows some much-deserved solidarity with the American worker.

At a time when politicians are constantly throwing around cheap platitudes about good-paying jobs and secure pensions, words are only worth something if we're willing to follow through and finish the job to support retirees like Donna and Mike. That's what I'm working to do.

Heitkamp represents North Dakota in the U.S. Senate.