The Alward government says it has "substantial union support" for public sector pension changes it introduced in the legislature Tuesday, even as a group of retirees continue to battle against the reforms.
The changes call for big hikes to how much employees will now have to contribute and how long it will take to qualify.
Even so, Finance Minister Blaine Higgs said he has garnered the support of unions representing two-thirds of the bargaining positions in the Public Service Superannuation Act (PSSA).
The pension plan is currently facing a $1-billion deficit, which is expected to grow. The government wants to move to a shared-risk model so taxpayers don't have to top up the fund in years when it loses money.
The province says a shared-risk model will make sure current employees have a secure pension when they retire, and that retirees will see their pensions grow with cost of living.
"We are a province that can no longer afford to do nothing," Higgs said. "We just can’t hit the pause button, we can’t just sit idle and watch our province go further and further in debt."
The average public service salary is $62,000 and the average pension is $21,400.
The changes are set to come into force on Jan. 1. It will mean a significant hike in what public workers contribute — $1,200 a year on average.
The legislation won't get support from Liberal Leader Brian Gallant.
"It’s quite clear to us," he said. "It’s quite clear to the pensioners and retirees and many retired New Brunswickers that there are many uncertainties with what they are proposing. They still didn’t accept our call for more information to be made public.”
'Smoke and Mirrors'
Earlier this month more than 1,500 angry retired public servants and their supporters gathered outside the legislature to protest pension reforms.
They contend it's not fair to change their benefits retroactively. And the concerns remain.
Pension Coalition NB chair Bonnie Hoyt-Hallett says eliminating cost-of-living increases will hurt the retirees, despite the minister's assurance that there will be no reduction in pension benefits.
She called the pension proposal “smoke and mirrors.”
"This isn’t a very good day for anybody that’s in the civil service," she said. "It’s not a good day for the future of the civil service because it’s going to be extremely hard to attract high, well-calibered talent into this province and to keep them here."
Some unions, however, have taken a different view.
"We recognize that the province is in a difficult fiscal situation," Suzie Proulx-Daigle, president of the New Brunswick Union, said in a statement.
"We could have refused to co-operate with government and kick the can down the road for the next generation to solve. Instead we decided to work in a collaborative way with government to find a solution. That solution is the shared-risk plan."
The New Brunswick Union represents about 4,200 members.
The other unions that have signed the agreement include: the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (2,200 members), the New Brunswick Nurses Union (200 members), CUPE 1252 Hospital workers (225 members), CUPE 1840 Court Stenographers (72 members) and CUPE 5017 Community College Operational Services (100 members).
The government is also turning its sights on teachers' pensions next, hoping to convert it to a shared risk as well. That plan has 18,500 members, including 9,900 current teachers and 8,600 retirees. The average salary is $73,000 and average pension is $31,000.