Massachusetts teachers’, public safety officers’, and public workers’ pension benefits are entitled to certain protections under state law and affirmed by court rulings. At the same time, the state does have some legal precedent that allows them to change particular aspects of retirement benefits.
In other words, there are parts of public pension benefits that can be changed by future state laws, but only certain parts of those benefits.
Equable Institute partnered with Columbia Law School’s Center for Public Research and Leadership to create infographics that map states’ pension governance. Understanding the legal environment for pension policies can be confusing for both lawmakers and public workers, but illuminating legally permissible policy pathways to improve funding sustainability and ensure adequate retirement income security for states’ workforces is essential.
In the case of Massachusetts, state law may allow the Legislature to change employee benefit calculations. They have previously made changes in 2009 and 2011, but these were never challenged in court. It is unclear if this would be upheld if public workers challenged such changes.
In 1973, the Massachusetts Supreme Court found that increases to workers’ employee contributions, without an increase in benefits is prohibited, but may be allowed in limited circumstances. However, this has not been attempted.
What’s unclear is whether Massachusetts can shift workers’ vesting periods or retirement age, because this issue has not been brought to court and there is no existing law explicitly prohibiting this change.
It is important to note that current retirees’ benefits have greater legal protection than those of active employees. Apart from reduced or eliminated COLAs, current retirees’ benefits cannot be taken away or reduced.
Disclaimer: The information here doesn’t constitute legal advice or representation. Equable is not necessarily recommending any of the policies discussed in the infographic. Some may not work for certain states, others may not be desirable policy. Ultimately, any pension policy change should honor promises made to public workers and put them on a path to retirement security, while ensuring sustainable funding measures.