Detroit’s City Workers Facing Poverty and Debt

They never dreamed they’d have to fight for their pensions and health care after decades of service to the city.

People, mostly union and retired city workers, protest in front of the courthouse where Detroit's bankruptcy-eligibility trial began Oct. 23, 2013, in Detroit.
People, mostly union and retired city workers, protest in front of the courthouse where Detroit's bankruptcy-eligibility trial began Oct. 23, 2013, in Detroit. Bill Pugliano/Getty Images

Smith, who suffers from asthma and high blood pressure, is worried that he will not be able to meet his monthly expenses if the city reduces his pension. He uses the money to buy medication, food and other staples. He is not the only one who is worried.

David Allen, a retired firefighter, says that he is no condition to find more work to supplement his income at this time. The 50-year-old Detroit native retired about nine months ago after a spinal cord injury he incurred when a roof collapsed while he was battling a fire, sending him tumbling in a wave of heat. Now, the married father of two teenagers says, he cannot walk without a walker.

“What else can I do other than wait for the appeal?” he asked. “I was injured in the city of Detroit, fighting for its citizens. We do not get Social Security. I’ve heard Orr talk about paying retirees 0.16 cents on the dollar. That will reduce my net to $380 a month. That’s it. There is nothing else. I can’t pay my house note and feed my family on that amount of money each month. It’s impossible.”

The visceral fear and frustration over what would become of his family rose in his voice the more he weighed his options. “In the film A Bronx Tale, one of the characters says, ‘The working man is a sucker,’” Allen continued. “That’s how I feel. I feel like a fool. But I’m still here.

“But what about the widow of the guy who lost his life fighting fires?” he continued. “What about the guy who is paralyzed and in a wheelchair? Yeah, Detroit is going to restructure, but what about the people? Will we be able to restructure?”

Dennis Hunter, a 42-year-old firefighter, says that a restructured pension would put his family in a bind in terms of his retirement plans. The married father of three, who is a homeowner, has been with the department for 15 years. He plans to work until he qualifies for retirement after 25 years of service, but he had to set up a barbershop in Detroit to help make ends meet. His oldest daughter is a sophomore at Michigan State University, and the other two, ages 15 and 12, will be headed to college soon.

“Last year we had our pay cut by 10 percent,” he told The Root. “That alone affects our pension payout. Fire, police, EMS, represent the infrastructure of any city. If you don’t have that, you have chaos. Legally we can’t strike, but the judge’s ruling essentially shredded our constitutional rights. It also set a precedent for the rest of the country to say, ‘Anytime we’re in trouble, we can raid people’s pensions.’ It’s a slap in the face to the American way.”

When he signed up to become a firefighter, he was fully aware that the job would take 10 years off his life because of work stress. But he signed up anyway because, well, who doesn’t want to save lives? There was also the promise of a pension, he said. After last year’s pay cut, he told The Root, his annual salary was reduced to $48,000.

“As firefighters, we don’t get paid a lot to do what we do, but we are promised to get a pension on the back end,” he said. “So we sacrifice the front end of our pay for the back end. We don’t pay into Social Security, so that’s all a lot of us have … the pension that we paid into. The state constitution says it protects police and fire pensions. They didn’t have to touch our pension in order to file bankruptcy.”

Donald Smith, who walks with a limp, says that he has nothing but hope because he is too old and sickly to work. He had hoped that his pension and Social Security would cover his financial needs in his old age, but he may have to turn to welfare to supplement his income. He worked all his life to avoid such a fate, he told The Root.