PORTLAND  — Public employees and union leaders are criticizing proposals to reduce benefits in order to help fund Oregon's public pension system.

Workers on Monday spoke to members of the Senate Workforce Committee, asking the lawmakers not to "raid" the retirement plans of newer employees in order to pay off a $22 billion deficit attributed in part to generous and unfunded benefits promised to retirees, The Oregonian/OregonLive reported.

"I think it's immoral that there are some that want to reduce the retirement benefits of people like me," said Barbara Walsh, who has worked as an office specialist for the Child Welfare office in Medford for five years. "It's immoral and, frankly, insulting. What we do is essential for our community. The private sector isn't going to take care of these vulnerable children."

The workers called on the Legislature to instead raise business taxes to pay for the unfunded pension system.

Committee Vice Chair Sen. Tim Knopp, R-Bend, has proposed two reform bills to deal with the pension troubles. One would redirect employees' contributions to support the pension fund, rather than supplemental retirement accounts. The other would redefine the final salary used to calculate a member's benefits from a three-year average to five, which will tend to lower employee benefits.

Knopp said his is pushing hard for a reform to the public employee retirement system to avoid a collapse of the system.

"It may not happen next year, but in three or four bienniums from now, the rates are going to be double what they are today," he said. "Our local districts and state agencies and school districts are already having trouble paying the PERS costs they have today."

Nevertheless, public employees focused on the fairness of reducing benefits for newer public employees who already have smaller benefits packages than their predecessors.

Melissa Unger, a lobbyist for the Service Employees International Union Local 503, said that Knopp's proposals could cut retirement benefits for new employees by as much as 40 percent.

Unger urged lawmakers to "do the right thing and reject these proposals that are illegal, unfair, and extreme, break the contracts you made with public workers and create other problems of either reduced services or increased costs."