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What’s fair for government workers

By Barbara Whelehan ·
Friday, November 23, 2012
Posted: 6 am ET

Many people begrudge government employees for the secure pensions they get after a lifetime of service as public workers. But many people don't realize that state and local workers in certain states don't contribute to Social Security, so their pensions are all they get.

"Fairness is a particularly important issue in states like California, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Illinois, Louisiana and Ohio, where one or more of the large retirement systems do not participate in Social Security," according to a new report from the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College. "With no Social Security and long vesting periods, short-service workers can leave with no benefits of any kind for their time spent in public employment."

That leaves a big retirement planning gap for those who spend a portion of their career in public service. Since Social Security benefits are based on the 35 highest-earning years after age 21, public workers who didn't pay into the system for a number of years but who are eligible for Social Security will get a reduced benefit amount when they reach retirement age.

Grass always looks greener elsewhere

The report finds that nearly half of government workers -- 47 percent -- leave their jobs with no promise of future benefits. It argues for the availability of defined contribution plans -- 401(k), 403(b) or 457 plans -- for public workers.

The current pension plan among state and local government workers requires tenure of a minimum of five years. Someone who works for five years beginning at age 35 as a middle school teacher, for example, will get just 6 percent of their pay when they retire. That may be enough to pay the bundled phone and cable bill at retirement, but not much more.

After 10 years, they get 14 percent of pay; after 15 years, 44 percent. Once you're in it's hard to leave, since the benefits only get richer as you invest more time at the job. If you don't like your line of work, you're stuck, serving a sort of prison term for the promise of that pension check.

Besides the requirement for long tenure to get vested, the benefits are back-loaded, meaning they're based on the three to five years of highest earnings, which generally occur at the end of a career. "An employee starting at 35 with a 30-year career will earn more than 30 percent of lifetime pension benefits in the last five years of employment," according to the report, which is titled "The impact of long vesting periods on state and local workers."

Government workers typically contribute 5.5 percent of their salary in these plans, according to the report. They should at the very least have the option to contribute to a defined contribution plan. But in those states where Social Security protections aren't in place, government workers should also have a choice of whether they wish to participate in the pension plan or in the Social Security system. That would seem more fair.

What do you think?


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November 23, 2012 at 1:11 pm

I'm retired firefighter AND police officer. Something that was missing is that in those people also had to pass multiple tests and background checks together with thousands of other vying for the same job. Moreover, only the ones "at the top" were permitted to attend months of training AND subsequent probationary period before being hired permanently.

All this to for a 25+ year career that includes sleep deprivation that has been shown to lead to heart disease. Not to mention the stress that might cause PTSD. Getting shot at and exposure to various diseases.

I'm not saying I didn't enjoy my career. I did and would do it again. Best "job" I ever had and I've had more than a few before hiring on as a public servant.

But if someone wants to whine about how good someone got it "on the other side of the fence"........"grow a pair" and be good enough walk in my shoes dude.

I dare you.

November 23, 2012 at 1:10 pm

I work for a county fire agency. I am a "non-union" employee. Not all fire department employees get to retire at 50. I have a physically demanding position that can expose me to the same hazards "after the call".
Our department has never paid into S.S. that I know of. I must work until I am 65 to collect full retirement benefits because I am not a union firefighter.
Be careful using that wide brush when painting all governemt employees. This is definately the land of the "haves and have nots"

November 23, 2012 at 1:07 pm

Where do people like Bonnie get their information!? I am about to retire after 21 years with the Federal Government. The pension will not be enough to live off. I have paid into SS since 1968 and both SS and the Federal pension will not be enough to live off. However, I have other resources that I earned and together the will provide for a reasonable way of life. Not a lot of nice things, but comfortable for me. If Bonnie thinks the Government pension is so great then why isn't or hasn't she applied for a job? I say everyone should pay into SS and Medicare and no one should be exempt, including the President, Congress, Supreme Court, and etc..

November 23, 2012 at 12:21 pm

This article isn't specifially about military side of government. But did you realize people like myself contributed to social security (it was taken from our checks like it or not) for a lifetime, however once we collect our military retirement we are robbed of all social security (re-)payments.

November 23, 2012 at 12:20 pm

I'm a retired federal employee, having worked in Washington D.C. for almost 40 years.
In my younger days, before my federal career, I worked in various small jobs, accumulating Social Security quarters- too few to get any Social Security benefits. However, with my pension from the federal government, and, thank goodness, continued health insurance benefits, I am certainly not complaining.
As a retired federal employee, I was worried about the outcome of the election, but all's well.
So far.

November 23, 2012 at 12:15 pm

Why should the average working person feel sorry for government employees? They get better benefits for them and their families, better salary,perks,and more time off than the average worker. They have pension which some of us do no, beside that most pensions yuou had to work their at least 25 years- Government employes only have to work a short time for theirs. Retire at a younger age than required by Social Security and they didn't pay into it. We have to make it on what we get-why are they special. No I don't feel sorry for them. I'd like to see them live on Social Security alone like most people.

November 23, 2012 at 12:12 pm

Same thing applies to school teachers. We don't receive anything from Social Security either. We only have our pension from Teacher's Retirement.

November 23, 2012 at 12:07 pm

Also the profession of some State and Local Government Employees need to be considered. Do you really want 65 year old Fire Firefighter/Paramedics carrying you down flights of stairs? Or a Police Officer wrestling with or chasing criminals down streets? Or DPS workers in deep holes repairing broken water mains in the dead of winter? This is why we have retirement ages at 50 or 25 years of service and retire. I paid 7% into my pension plan and worked part-time, Military previous low paying jobs enough to get 40 quarters of Social Security to qualify. My projected benefit is $397 after age 67. I am 55 now.

November 23, 2012 at 11:42 am

i am a former government employees, who froze my pinching fun after doing 15 years of service. age know 60 wont to retire have 20 years in social security and a 401(k)can i go out know. no job at this time.

November 23, 2012 at 11:11 am

Many people begrudge government employees for the secure pensions they get after a lifetime of service as public workers. But many people don't realize that state and local workers in certain states don't contribute to Social Security, so their pensions are all they get.


I am a "local worker".

1. I can collect my pension at 50 years old with only 5 years service.

2. I pay into Social Security.