Over the Hill

Paso man has hand in pension deal

I wrote last week about Norm Cone of Paso Robles. In 1978, he hired on at Atascadero State Hospital as a psychiatric technician. A few years later, the California Association of Psychiatric Technicians was formed, and he became president of that union’s Atascadero chapter.

In the mid-1980s, he represented his chapter in negotiations with the state over the union’s first collective bargaining contract.

He had two main goals:

Get a minimum retirement age of 55 for psychiatric technicians in the state hospitals that treat criminal patients.

Get a mandate that psychiatric technicians must continue their education if they want to renew their licenses.

Cone felt psychiatric technicians should continue their education to improve their professional status, and to keep abreast of the latest medications and methods.

He feared that if psychiatric technicians didn’t keep up, the nurses’ association might challenge their right to practice. The state agreed to impose the mandate.

As for the retirement age, the existing minimum was 60. Cone said it should be 55 for psychiatric technicians who work with criminally committed patients.

Even noncriminal patients can be unpredictable, aggressive and violent. Psychiatric technicians, Cone said, were the most frequently injured state employees. The job could be too challenging for some people in their late 50s.

The harshest opponents of that proposal were union negotiators from the state hospitals that didn’t treat criminally committed patients.

Their hospitals’ retirement age would remain 60. They preferred a raise.

But Cone was adamant and won. He said, “I was terrified of coming back to Atascadero without delivering.”

Cone believes the psychiatric technicians union was the state’s first “nonuniformed, nonbadged” union to win age 55 retirement. But by 1999, two-thirds of all the state’s employees had received it.

Cone didn’t wait until 55 to quit. His encounters with violent patients had taken a heavy toll. In 1991, at the age of 35, his doctor told him to find another line of work. So he quit and became a financial adviser. But still, his injuries caught up with him. At 49, he had a knee replaced.

During his labor negotiations, Cone saw how some politicians think.

His observations may explain what led to the current pension crisis that threatens to send our state and local governments to the poor house.

Many politicians may have thought, “Increasing pensions is a future cost. It won’t hurt this year’s budget. It might get me some union votes this fall. And I’m sure the retirement fund’s investment income will grow enough to cover it.”