Back in 1982, I figured I had made a good choice. That's when I started working for the federal government. Although my chances to match a private sector salary in the same field were slim to none, my employer did offer me generous benefits in the form of subsidized medical and dental plans and an indexed pension.
So when I retired three years ago, I had no regrets. Sure, I hadn't amassed a small fortune like some of my non-government contemporaries but I did have a comfortable indexed pension and medical and dental benefits for my family that cost us about $500 annually for each plan. We weren't going to be summering in the Hamptons and wintering in Whistler but we wouldn't have to be pinching pennies either (if pennies still existed).
Now it looks like that bargain I made over 30 years ago is under attack by the current government. Recently, Treasury Board President Tony Clement reportedly floated a trial balloon which would see federal government retirees' annual health insurance premiums double. For us, that would mean an extra $500 expense.
The rationale for this proposed increase is that federal pensioners are only paying 25 per cent of the costs of the medical plan and should be paying half like employees in the private sector. This is apparently in keeping with the Tories' stated aim to overhaul all federal pension and benefit schemes to ensure a 50-50 split between pensioners and the government.
Superficially, this all sounds completely fair. Why shouldn't retirees pay more if that's what others have to do? The reason is that this was not the bargain federal employees entered into when they signed on to work for the government.
I deliberately chose to leave the private sector and join the government based on what was on offer. I knew back then that I wasn't going to make piles of money as a public servant. In fact, over time, I would be making far less than my private sector counterparts.
In return for giving up the opportunity for higher wages, I willingly and gladly accepted the rest of the package on offer, namely, greater job security, medical and dental benefits and an indexed pension. I planned my retirement around these benefits and, until now, it has worked out well. I am not wealthy but our family has been able to survive quite nicely on the pension and benefits I receive.
Today I'm not so sure. As a member of the National Association of Federal Retirees, I have been alerted to Mr. Clement's informal proposal to take back $500 a year from my family, an amount which will add up to thousands of dollars over my lifetime.
What's wrong with that, you might ask? What's wrong is that I planned on the benefits the government offered me and I have budgeted accordingly. Sure, an extra $500 isn't going to bankrupt us but it will make things a little tighter financially, especially with my daughter heading off to university this fall.
But there are others who will be affected even more severely than us. There are many federal retirees in their 80s and 90s who live on modest pensions and who have lots of extra expenses and very little wriggle room in their budgets to accommodate any more clawbacks from the government. They didn't plan on their former employer changing the rules of the game at this late stage. After all, it's not as if they're in a position to take on a part-time job to make ends meet.
My fear is that the Harper government has an agenda, one that isn't that hidden. My fear is that doubling my medical insurance premiums is just the first step in a not-so-secret plan to reduce all manner of benefits for federal retirees. If they can get away with this initial proposal, I wouldn't be surprised to be faced with a doubling of my dental insurance premiums and a de-indexing of my government pension.
I suspect that most Canadians will care very little about the plight of a bunch of "overpaid" federal retirees. But they should because I doubt the Tories will stop with us. There is already talk of upping the qualifying age for Canada Pension and Old Age Security. And it wasn't that many years ago that another Conservative, Brian Mulroney, tried to partially de-index OAS.
I hope that federal retirees from coast to coast will loudly object to this bargain-breaking government, the same government that sees fit to have us taxpayers contribute $25 for every dollar that MPs pay towards their gold-plated pensions (often in excess of $100,000 a year) that they can qualify for after only six years. And I hope we succeed, not only for our benefit but for the benefit of all Canadians.