Retired Texas teachers celebrate likely pay bump as former state employees wait for theirs

Hundreds of retired teachers from around the state celebrated on the Texas Capitol lawn Wednesday afternoon, eating ice cream with sprinkles under a big, white tent and listening to lawmakers share their excitement at the prospects of passing a pay bump to teachers' monthly benefits.

A short walk away, at a different rally, a shirtless man wore a barrel with suspenders attached to it — a caricature of a cartoon, Depression-era hobo. The barrel showed price comparisons for Spam and cat food between 2023 and 2021 — the last time Texas’ retired state employee pension system received a so-called cost-of-living adjustment.

BACKGROUND: Retired Texas teachers close in on long-awaited pay bump

The Teacher Retirement System is the largest public pension plan in the state, and has received the most attention from the Legislature, receiving supplemental checks in 2007, 2019 and 2021. This year, the Legislature appears primed to approve an ongoing monthly increase that retired teachers have long asked for.

The plan is not finalized, but one version of it that has already passed the Senate would set aside about $4.5 billion for more than 400,000 retired teachers. That would go toward raises and, for 180,000 of them, one-time, $7,500 checks.

The Employee Retirement System is smaller, with a total of 122,000 people receiving pension checks. The average age is 70, and most receive less than $2,000 per month. Retired state employees haven’t received a cost-of-living adjustment since 2001 or a supplemental check since 2002.

The Texas State Employees Union rallied shortly before the retired teachers event started, just a few hundred yards away, on the south steps of the Capitol. A parade of speakers angrily called for pay raises and a cost-of-living adjustment of their own, pumping up the crowd with chants and call-and-response. So far in budget negotiations, there is momentum for a 10 percent pay increase for current state staff over the biennium, but no funds were set aside for the cost-of-living adjustment.

“The Legislature has an opportunity to do so many good things,” said Leonard Aguilar, secretary-treasurer of the Texas AFL-CIO. The volume on his microphone was so loud that it was audible from outside the Capitol grounds. “They have a great opportunity to do so many good things, but they don’t,” he said. “Why? Why don’t they help us? Why don’t they help us get those pay raises? Why don’t they help us get the increase for our retirees?”

Rob Wucher, the man in the barrel, said he was happy that the retired teachers were on track to receive their long-awaited raises. A former dam inspector for the state, Wucher retired 12 years ago, and he said he receives $2,400 pension checks each month, or $28,800 per year.

“It’s hard to make ends meet. It’s been so long since we’ve had a COLA,” he said, adding that recent inflation has hit his household particularly hard. “We’re relegated to chicken and pizza for the most part. We don’t go to the restaurants we used to.”

Every so often, retired teachers — who all wore red shirts for their annual Capitol visit — walked through the crowd on their way to their own rally, glancing with curiosity at the commotion before continuing on their way.

The teachers event was hosted by an emcee who killed time between speakers by singing Dwight Yoakam covers. The attendees chattered amiably amongst themselves. In the back, workers scooped ice cream from buckets in large Igloo coolers, heaping them with toppings including mixed nuts, sprinkles and M&Ms.

“Things are coming up roses for you!” said Rep. Alma Allen, a Houston Democrat and former educator at Houston Independent School District for 39 years. Allen said she recently celebrated her 84th birthday, and the crowd of teachers broke out into song.

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Linda Wilson, a former state employee from the San Antonio area, said she retired in 2002, one year after the last cost-of-living adjustment.

She receives $1,550 in monthly benefits, or $18,600 per year. She’s considering getting another job because she’s anxious her children may have to support her financially.

“We want the teachers to get something, but is my daughter — who’s a teacher — going to pay for my nursing home?” she said. “Who’s going to pay for that?”