Five top officers at the Boston Carmen’s Union have retired from the MBTA so far this year, cashing in on their pensions just as the retirement system is facing pressure from the Baker administration and lawmakers to consider trimming benefits or making other changes to bolster its financial health.
James O’Brien, president of Carmen’s Local 589, retired as of March 1, according to pension data made public by the transit authority. He was a bus driver for 16 years and a union official for the next 16. At age 57, he is in his second three-year term as president of the largest union representing transit system workers.
By triggering their pensions now, O’Brien and the other retiring officers have likely locked in their annual payout levels — even if union retirement benefits are reduced in the future.
O’Brien’s yearly retirement pay will be $91,015, according to the T’s data. Union officials’ retirement benefits are based not on their MBTA pay, but on their union pay, which is higher. His final salary as a bus driver was $74,589, according to the T.
Under the union’s rules, it’s permissible for officers to be retired from the T. But there’s a wave of concern among rank and file employees about how their pensions will be safeguarded, now that half the union’s executive board is retired.
Besides O’Brien, the other retirees include Peggy LaPaglia, a union vice president; and delegates John Hunt, Allen Lee, and Mike Keller, according to the T’s records and the union’s spokeswoman. They range in age from 48 to 58, and each has at least 24 years of service.
“We collectively represent 136 years of hard work and dedication to the MBTA, and 136 years of investment into the MBTA pension fund,’’ O’Brien said in a statement. Retiring from their MBTA posts has “no bearing on our work and continued commitment to our brothers and sisters in the Boston Carmen’s Union,’’ he said.
But some union members who contacted the Globe said they are worried. On its current trajectory, the $1.5 billion T pension fund is facing a potential $1 billion shortfall over the next 18 years, according to the transit authority’s acting chief, Brian Shortsleeve.
Part of the pension fund’s problem is that it has more retirees than active employees. Also, many workers are retiring young, in their 50s, after the mandatory 23 or 25 years of service. That means they could receive pension benefits for more years than they paid into the system.
The state Senate recently passed a measure to establish a commission to review the T’s retirement system. It would include representatives of Governor Charlie Baker, the attorney general, the treasurer, unions, and other stakeholders. Separately, Baker is pressing the MBTA fund to outsource its investments to the larger state pension fund, which has a better performance record.
The T pension system has long operated in secrecy, rarely dispensing information to members or the public despite the tens of millions of dollars in taxpayer contributions it receives every year.
O’Brien is a member of the pension system’s six-person board. “We are committed to serving the Boston Carmen’s Union, working on behalf of members and retirees to ensure their best interests are protected, and ensuring the long term viability of the pension fund,’’ he said in his statement.
During their tenure as officials, the union has paid the employer portion of their pension contributions, Boston Carmen’s Union spokeswoman Cayenne Isaksen said.