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The state steps in to help Oregonians save enough for retirement

by: PHOTO: MERRY MACKINNON - Deborah and John Field, co-owners of Paperjam Press in Northeast Portland, rebuilt their print business from scratch after the recession hit. But they had to lay off all their employess and they lost most of their retirement savings.As owners and operators of digital print and design businesses for more than 20 years, Deborah and John Field once had 10 employees — until the recession hit in 2008.

“I’ve worked hard all my life and followed the rules,” Deborah Field said, recalling how the couple had to lay off all their employees. “Now it’s just the two of us.”

It wasn’t only their business that tanked five years ago. Invested in the stock market, their retirement savings also took a dive. They paid off all their creditors and lived off their diminished savings.

“We don’t have much left,” Deborah said.

Having been financially vulnerable to the vagaries of Wall Street, as well as having seen the hardships experienced by others, Deborah decided to lobby in favor of a bill tackling the problem of workers’ lack of retirement savings. As an executive team member of Main Street Alliance, an organization of small businesses, Deborah spoke at a press conference last summer supporting Oregon House Bill 3436.

Spearheaded by Sen. Lee Beyer, D-Springfield, Sen. Diane Rosenbaum, D-Portland, and Rep. Jules Bailey, D-Portland, HB 3436 passed in the Oregon Legislature in July. It creates the Oregon Retirement Savings Task Force, members of which soon will be announced.

At 59 and 62 respectively, Deborah and John are already beyond the age at which John’s father retired. But the couple anticipate working for many more years, running their latest digital print business, Paperjam Press, in Northeast Portland.

Still, Deborah contemplates her own retirement with some anxiety. And she’s also concerned about the prospects for younger workers, like those she once employed.

Others are concerned as well.

Nearly half of Oregonians aged 25 to 64 currently are not covered by a retirement plan at work, according to Retirement in Reach, a coalition of organizations including AARP, Urban League of Portland and Mainstreet Alliance. Retirement in Reach contends that many working Oregonians are at risk of living in poverty when they retire. It supported HB 3436.

Bailey said he backed the bill because the current system for establishing retirement security is not working.

“Oregonians are dramatically underestimating how much savings they will need for retirement,” Bailey said. Another problem is that currently established savings plans such as 401(k)s and IRAs are extremely hard to decipher, even for Bailey, an economist.

At 34 years old, Bailey is especially troubled by the retirement outlook for workers his age.

“A lot of people my age switch from job to job,” he said, adding that puts the onus on every family to figure out a plan for themselves at each new workplace, assuming one is even offered. These days, employers are offering fewer and fewer retirement benefits, and the issue of retirement security is a growing crisis in Oregon, he said.

HB 3436 requires the task force to study and recommend a solution to enable all working Oregonians to reach retirement with sufficient savings to support themselves above what they earn in Social Security benefits.

Task force recommendations won’t be announced for another year, but possibilities Bailey cited might include a fund managed by the state, but with no state liability, or a program structured like a college savings plan, or some state administered offering of marketplace plans.

“The idea is to create an easy way to make it safe to save for retirement,” Bailey said. “There wouldn’t be a guaranteed return, but there would be a trusted manager at the helm.”