Michael Patrick didn’t intend to retire at age 62. After 32 years at the DNR, the Local 880 member still loved the work he did to protect and build the state’s fisheries.
But when he was diagnosed with cancer in 2001, he decided that if he was going to spend his days outdoors, it wasn’t going to be working. Thanks to the Rule of 90, he was eligible. Thanks to his union-negotiated pension, he was able to swing it financially.
“Without that, I couldn’t have done it,” Patrick says. “I feel fortunate, personally.”
Dennis Kohlgraf’s story is similar. He has 36 years at MnDOT, mostly as a highway maintenance worker – plowing snow, patching potholes, marking pavement. But now he has health issues. So he’s retiring this year, at age 63.
“I decided to spoil the grandkids,” he says. He lists a garden, a model railroad layout and other projects on which he expects to have plenty of young helpers. But without a state pension to rely on, combined with deferred compensation he can tap to pay health-insurance premiums, he could not have called it quits. “I could not retire. I don’t know how I’d make it,” Kohlgraf says.
Kohlgraf and Patrick are just two of the thousands of public employees able to retire when they need to – or want to – thanks to their defined-benefit pension. That pension is especially crucial for workers who retire early, before they’re eligible for Social Security.
Enriching themselves, their families, their communities
With a pension as a foundation, public employees quietly give back to their communities – as grandparents, customers, entrepreneurs, volunteers. Ninety-two percent of them stay in Minnesota. “When I won’t have to get out and plow at 2 or 3 in the morning,” Kohlgraf jokes, “winters won’t be so hard.”
Janice Blegen, of Local 2822, is typical. She retired in 1988 after 34 years as a clerical employee in Hennepin County. She now lives with her daughter in Fridley – in part so she can watch her grandchildren when their mother is working. “I’m here for the kids,” Blegen says. “It’s like raising a second family.”
In her free time, Blegen pursues her first love – music. She sings with two groups that perform at churches, senior citizen events and the like.
Kathy Schlangen, a member of Local 2829, retired this year at age 57, so she can “finally pursue things of interest to me, while I’m still young enough.” She plans to start her own arts-related business. Her pension is giving her the financial stability to get started.
Patrick runs his own business, too – Northwoods Archery in Deerwood, which he started 30 years ago. It gives him a great excuse to enjoy the outdoors – and to teach his 12 grandchildren to hunt.
Patrick is active in his local Lions Club and the local chapter of the National Wild Turkey Federation, which buys habitat, plants trees, and works with youth. And, every Wednesday, Patrick drives dialysis patients to Brainerd for treatment.
A modest, package deal
For the most part, retirees say, their pension gives them a decent life – once they can combine it with Social Security. But retirement is hardly the lush life critics like to imagine. Public-employee pensions are modest: The typical AFSCME retiree receives about $13,000 a year.
To make ends meet, Blegen worked part-time for years after she officially retired. For extra pocket money, Patrick occasionally does night janitor work; his wife, Eileen, cleans cabins.
“There’s no way you can do it with state retirement alone,” says Con Johnson, a MnDOT worker from Local 605 who retired in 2007 after 35 years. “I have some friends who tried it: They hit the Rule of 90 and said, ‘I’m done.’ They quit – and they had a real tough time.”