Ten years ago when I joined the public sector as a risk manager for a suburban Atlanta county, I remember being surprised to learn the job came with a defined benefit pension.
"Really? A pension," I thought, thinking of my dad and his union buddies. Defined benefit pensions - retirement plans that calculate age, years of service and other factors, and pay a benefit for the life of a retiree - were virtually unheard of for Generation Xers.
In fact, the idea was so foreign to me that I remember telling my husband that we should continue to prepare for retirement as if there wasn't a pension in my future. Turns out, that may have been pretty good advice.
Many state pensions still on firm financial footing
Nowadays, all American generations appear to be acutely aware of the pensions offered to the nation's public employees. There seems to be a growing sentiment fueled by 24-hour news channels, as well as local media, that public-sector pensions are about to implode and perhaps be the next multibillion dollar failure needing a bail out.
This is true in some cases, with a dozen state pension systems at risk of running out of money within the next decade or so. But many state pensions are still on strong financial footing, despite the political theater surrounding them.
As a department director in the public sector, I view these benefits as an exceptionally valuable tool with which to attract and retain the best and brightest. But lately, there is an "us/them" mentality brewing in America, suggesting that government workers have become the "haves" and their private-sector counterparts have become the "have nots."
A number of studies do seem to support the notion that the monthly retirement benefit of a government worker will exceed that of his retired private-sector neighbor. This is largely because the public sector continues to offer DB pensions to workers, while the private sector has long since replaced them with defined contribution plans.
There are several culprits to blame for the switch - the birth of the 401(k), regulations heaped on employers following the Enron debacle, inability to meet long-term obligations following a volatile stock market and so on. Regardless of the reason, a scant 11% of private employers offer DB plans today, compared to 90% of public employers.
And therein lies the rub
Following the financial crash in 2008, many employees near retirement who were enrolled in 401(k) plans shouldered unexpected and catastrophic personal losses. DB plans suffered losses as well - but the losses fell on the organization itself, not the worker. And if the organization is a public agency, the risk is borne by the taxpayers.
And therein lies the rub.
Public-sector managers historically have struggled to compete with the private sector to attract and retain the best workers possible. I'm not talking about the stereotypical workers that are often depicted rudely addressing the public from their Department of Motor Vehicles cubicles.
Dynamic, passionate public servants
I'm talking about dynamic individuals who are passionate and committed to the services they provide. I work with them every day and know them by name. Many of these people save more money for their public agencies than they will ever collect in salary, yet their accomplishments are often unsung.
So I read the headlines with a bit of apprehension as I watch the pendulum shifting in the general direction of the private sector and the death of the defined benefit pension plan.
The comparison of government and private-sector workers, at least from my point of view, is really more "apples/oranges" than "have/have not." Unlike their private-sector counterparts, government employees do not enjoy annual bonuses. Their raises are dependent on property values and other factors that have nothing to do with their exceptional job performance. In Florida and other states, public employees have endured more than three years of raise freezes, furloughs, layoffs and pay cuts. Jobs that were once considered secure are now considered secure only 12 months at a time.
As a risk manager and fiscal conservative, I'm well aware you can't get blood from a turnip, and drastic measures are necessary if a state or local government's DB plan is not adequately funded. But if the pension is fiscally sound - and despite popular headlines, many state pensions still are (including the Florida Retirement System and that of "political-headline-sexy" Wisconsin as well) - they are an exceptional recruiting tool for public employers looking to lure top candidates to government service.
Choice offers solution
Perhaps the key to moving the public sector into a fiscally responsible future, while still offering employees a future of their own, is offering a choice to employees.
For example, the Florida Retirement System allows its participants to either choose a DB plan or an investment plan with a shorter vesting period and a similarity to a 401(k). Studies show that more and more workers are opting into the investment plan. As many younger workers - with no intention of a 30-year career with one employer - enter the public sector workforce (and we want them badly), they're choosing the 401(k).
But if you find yourself living next door to a retired road and bridge worker, or water utilities crewman, or animal care and control officer, there's a chance he's drawing a retirement from a DB plan. He's a good neighbor to have on your block. And he's earned his retirement one year of dedicated service at a time.
Contributing Editor Nancy L. Bolton is the director of risk management for the Palm Beach County Board of County Commissioners in West Palm Beach, Fla.
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