The Massachusetts legislature is considering a controversial bill that, if enacted, would provide three years of credit to public workers’ retirement plans upon retirement if they worked outside their homes during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic.
The merits of financially rewarding public workers for pandemic service are understandable, but this proposal may not actually accomplish that goal when all of the math is worked out.
Supporters of the bill say the pension credit is aimed at thanking essential workers who left their home from March 10-Dec. 31, 2020. The legislation is supported by numerous unions and the National Association of Government Employees.
But opponents say providing such credits would put a strain on the state’s finances. “There is zero analysis to see how much this would cost,” Geoff Beckwith, executive director of the Massachusetts Municipal Association, told WBUR News. “There is 100% certainty that this would be unaffordable.”
Whether or not the proposal is “affordable” is certainly a function of policy priorities within the current budget. But whether or not the proposal might undermine the finances of the retirement system is another matter.
States have a long history of using the expansion of retirement benefits as a way to raise compensation while spreading out the costs over time. Benefit enhancements can be priced and fully paid for at the time they are authorized—and a few states have laws that require this. But if the costs are not properly measured and paid for, there is always a danger that purportedly helping public employees with a benefit increase actually hurts them in the long-run by undermining the financial sustainability of their retirement system.
Once the costs of offering that reward through state pension systems are known, the legislature can weigh whether that is an appropriate use of future money or if it would be more prudent to pay workers using resources from today’s public resources.
But, at the same time, if the legislature is going to measure costs related to the pension system they should look at the quality of benefits being provided to workers under the status quo, too.
According to Equable’s Retirement Security Report, an interactive tool that evaluates the quality of state-sponsored retirement plans, only those who stay in the same retirement system for 20 or more years—known as Full-term Workers—are provided with adequate retirement income security under most plans offered by Massachusetts.
Those who stay in one retirement plan for less than 10 years, or between 10 and 20—known as Short-term and Medium-term workers, respectively—are generally not served well by their pensions.
Some plans don’t serve any workers well. The Massachusetts State Employees’ Retirement System Hazardous Duty pension plan, open to public safety employees, only scored a 22-out-of-30 for Full-Term workers, meaning it only serves them moderately well.
Providing these workers with additional pension credits is commendable in theory, but if those plans are already failing workers, then it somewhat defeats the purpose. Perhaps a better way to thank the tens of thousands who put their health at risk would be to restructure their retirement plan options so every worker—regardless of their career tenure—knows they’re on the path to retirement security.