The COVID-19 pandemic has had a devastating impact on families and communities across the country, but the crisis has underscored the vulnerability of older Americans in particular. That’s why the AFT sent a letter to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on May 5, urging him to support and protect America’s older adults, not punish them.
“We are writing to you as retired members of the American Federation of Teachers and public pension fund trustees to demand that you commit to supporting and protecting America’s seniors during and after this crisis—and stop proposing policies that would punish seniors,” the letter states.
There are more than 1 million cases of COVID-19 in the U.S. Although people of all ages have been infected, older Americans are most vulnerable to the coronavirus. Yet, programs that would help them have been repeatedly attacked, and McConnell has proposed further spending cuts—putting the health and economic stability of older Americans in jeopardy.
“So many retirees depend on our pension benefits in order to lead an economically secure life. Anything that would endanger those benefits by removing constitutional and regulatory guarantees would diminish and impair the lifestyle that we fought for in union solidarity,” says Tom Murphy, chapter leader for the Retired Teachers Chapter/United Federation of Teachers. “The Senate should enhance, not diminish, the economic needs of retirees as well as in-service union members.”
“The president and members of Congress want to cut Social Security and Medicare, and it’s not right,” says Janice Poirier, president of Florida Education Association-Retired. “Their priorities are not in the right place. She signed the AFT’s letter in hopes of getting through to McConnell. “Maybe he will read the letter and be moved to do the right thing.”
In the letter, retirees also called for solutions that improve the economic security of retirees and the health of Social Security instead of cuts. The letter calls for an increase in minimum benefits to reflect a growing cost of living, and requests that the Windfall Elimination Provision and Government Pension Offset provisions be reformed so that they do not unfairly penalize retired public employees.
“I’ve experienced what it’s like to be mistreated because we are senior citizens. That’s why I decided to get into the fight to protect pensions and the social safety net,” says Rita Runnels with the Texas AFT Retiree Plus. Runnels, who is also a member of the AFT Retiree Council, has testified before the Texas Legislature asking lawmakers to better fund their pension system and allow a cost-of-living increase. Runnels husband, Charles, died from throat cancer in March, but she says they had to raise money to pay for his chemotherapy because the out-of-pocket costs were too much. “We are paying so much for healthcare, but when you need it you can’t get it because you can’t afford it.”
In the letter, the AFT asked McConnell to move away from any suggestion that states should declare bankruptcy to deal with the economic upheaval caused by the pandemic. Such a move would in effect gut public services and pensions that workers have contributed to for decades over the course of their employment. “The federal government should provide states with urgently needed relief during this crisis, to be used as they see fit to address budget shortfalls,” the letter stated. “To cut funding to states now would be to turn your back on public employees and older Americans when they are at their most vulnerable.”
The letter also called on McConnell to take immediate steps to protect our election system and ensure that all voters can cast their ballots without jeopardizing their health and safety.
“I hope they will hear our voices and listen to our stories and not mess with funding,” says Runnels. “It’s unfair to take food out of one hand to feed another. We have to look at other ways to address this crisis.”