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PSERS latest investments don’t align with what union members want | Opinion

UNITE HERE Local 634 president: " We do not want our retirement to be funded by the exploitation of the communities we spend decades serving and those we come from."

PSERS building in Harrisburg.
PSERS building in Harrisburg.Read moreHandout (custom credit)

As the president of UNITE HERE Local 634, I care a lot about the 2,000 public school cafeteria employees and student-climate staff in Philadelphia — the state’s largest school district — who I work with and represent, and I’m passionate about the families we serve. Many of us have worked long enough to see multiple generations pass through our schools, but when our working years are behind us and we enter retirement, we are thankful to have our pensions.

However, we do not want our retirement to be funded by the exploitation of the communities we spend decades serving and those we come from. That is why I am profoundly disappointed in the Pennsylvania Public School Employees’ Retirement System’s (PSERS) recent decision to invest with private equity firm Platinum Equity.

PSERS, which manages our pension and held its board meeting last week in Harrisburg, has invested more than a billion dollars with Platinum Equity. Our last investment was used by Platinum Equity to buy Securus Technologies, a predatory prison phone company.

Securus provides telecom service to 3,400 correctional facilities across the country, and 40 prisons and jails in Pennsylvania alone. Through its rapacious pricing, Securus siphons money out of communities like ours to the tune of more than $600 million annually, exploiting the need for communication between incarcerated people and their loved ones on the outside.

Platinum Equity was acutely aware of these concerns when it bought Securus with our money.

Many Local 634 members know what it’s like to have a child, spouse, or friend incarcerated, or we know someone who does. Many of us also know what it’s like to barely make enough money to make ends meet — we are the working poor — and how expensive it is to keep in contact with our incarcerated loved ones. Every day, we see children in our cafeterias and on our playgrounds who have parents or siblings in the system going through the same thing.

For me, it’s personal. My son puts money on his friends’ Securus accounts so he can stay in touch with them while they serve time. It adds up quickly. For people held at Tioga County jail, for example, a 15-minute phone call through Securus costs $9.22. In Union County, it costs $10.25. At the Delaware County Juvenile Detention Facility, it’s a shocking $11.25. And it’s worse elsewhere. Securus charges as much as $25 for the same 15-minute call in other states.

As an African American woman, I’m well aware that families in my community bear an outsized financial burden in supporting their loved ones on the inside with everything from phone calls to commissary to health-care costs. In fact, 87 percent of those who shoulder these costs are women of color like me. Nationwide, one in three families goes into debt to pay for these costs. Local 634 members serve children every day whose parents are behind bars, and it’s heartbreaking to know that the cost of a phone call is one more obstacle keeping them from staying connected to mom or dad.

That’s why I can’t accept that the pension board that I entrust with my retirement money would invest it in a company like Securus, or its owner, Platinum Equity. It’s unethical and good returns are no excuse; Platinum Equity should not be trusted with a single one of our dollars. I can’t bear the thought that my retirement will be funded off the grief of the children we serve. PSERS owes public school employees an apology for using our money to bolster a prison profiteer. More importantly, it owes an apology to every child in public school who can’t afford the cost of a 15-minute call to a mom or dad.

Nicole Hunt is president of UNITE HERE Local 634 Philadelphia.