Tag Archives: defined contribution plan

Public Employees Value Their Retirement Benefits

A recent survey gauged how important retirement benefits are to state and local government workers, and the crucial role that pensions and other benefits play in recruiting and retaining workers.

In 2015, more than 19 million Americans worked for state or local governments, according to U.S. Census Bureau data. Retirement benefits, including defined benefit and defined contribution plans, were available to most of those workers.

Last year, the National Institute on Retirement Security commissioned a survey of more than 1,100 public sector employees. Teachers, police officers, firefighters and other public workers were asked questions on a variety of work-related subjects, from job satisfaction to health care benefits. The majority of public workers surveyed (86 percent) cited retirement benefits as a major reason they stay in their jobs.

retirement benefits

Defined Benefit vs. Defined Contribution

An overwhelming number (94 percent) of government employees surveyed said pensions help attract and retain workers. The same percentage had a favorable view of defined benefit pension plans.

As a NYSLRS member, you are part of a defined benefit plan, also known as a traditional pension plan. Your pension is a lifetime benefit based on years of service and earnings. It is not based on your individual contributions to the Retirement System.

With defined contributions plans, such as 401(k)-style retirement savings plans, the employer, employee or both make contributions to an individual retirement account. The money in the account is invested, and the amount the employee has at retirement is based on investment returns. A market downturn can affect the value of the benefit and employees risk outliving their money.

When Retirement Benefits Get Reduced

In an effort to cut costs, some state and local governments have replaced defined benefit plans with defined contribution plans. But these moves have had unexpected consequences.

The Institute’s study cites the experience of Palm Beach, Florida, which gutted its defined benefit plan. The town soon realized that it was spending large sums to recruit and train new police officers, only to see them move to nearby communities with better benefits. The town reconsidered and improved its pension plan.

Then there’s the case of West Virginia, where officials found that switching to a defined contribution plan for teachers actually cost more money. Because the traditional pension plan stopped receiving contributions from new teachers and their employers, it became harder for the state to meet its pension obligations. After 14 years, the state went back to offering a defined benefit plan to all new teachers. Teachers already in the 401(k)-style plan were allowed to switch to the traditional plan, and 79 percent made the switch. State officials project that the return to a defined benefit system will save them $1.2 billion in the first 30 years.

Meanwhile, Alaska is still struggling with its decision to drop its defined benefit plan. A report by the Alaska Department of Public Safety cited “the inability to provide a defined benefits retirement system” as a factor in the “critically low staffing levels” for Alaska state troopers.

Tackling Retirement Security for Working Americans

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Many Americans are lacking access to employer-sponsored retirement plans.

America is facing a retirement security crisis. The shift away from defined benefit (DB) pensions in favor of defined contribution (DC) plans is considered a common cause. The number of workers with a DB plan decreased pdf-icon (PDF) from 67 percent to 43 percent between 1989 and 1998, while those with a DC plan rose from 33 to 57 percent during that same time. The lack of access to any sort of employer-sponsored retirement plan is another factor: 43.3 million American workers didn’t have access to an employer-sponsored retirement plan in 2013.

The unfortunate truth, though, is that many Americans just aren’t prepared to retire.

A State Solution to the Retirement Crisis?

A few weeks ago, we mentioned how AARP NY called for a state-sponsored retirement savings program to address this problem. According to AARP NY, Americans are 15 times less likely to open a retirement savings plan on their own compared to if their employer offered one. Even more startling, about 3.6 million New Yorkers working in the private sector don’t have access to any kind of employer-sponsored retirement plan.

At the federal level, creating a DC plan with automatic enrollment has been unsuccessful. The president recently asked the Department of Labor to clarify how states can move forward with state-sponsored plans. This could help states manage how to enroll employees into a 401(k), providing workers a chance to start saving for retirement.

Pensions: A Major Part of Retirement Security

Workers will need more than their Social Security and personal savings for a secure retirement. This is where more employer-sponsored retirement plans can help workers. About two thirds of working age Americans aren’t taking part in a retirement plan pdf-icon (PDF) . But even though DC plans are now more common than DB plans, that doesn’t mean they’re the best answer to providing steady retirement income. A DB plan provides a steady source of income for the pensioner’s lifetime. There’s no guarantee a DC plan will provide a retiree with enough or any income during retirement. If too many workers retire without an employer-sponsored plan, they could face levels of poverty in retirement.

Income Inequality and Pension Reform

Is the shift away from defined benefit pension plans hurting more than helping?

Today’s pension reform means increasing employee contributions, cutting pension benefits, and switching from defined benefit (DB) plans to defined contribution (DC) plans. In fact, according to a new study from the National Conference on Public Employee Retirement Systems (NCPERS), 15 million additional workers would have defined benefit plans if there had not been a trend over the past 30 years to convert pensions into defined contribution (DC) plans. However, there may be a hidden cost to this approach. As these reforms negatively affect plan participants and beneficiaries, income inequality appears to increase.

In the study, NCPERS looks at the growing debate between DB and DC plans. Those in favor of DC plans claim that DB public pension plans aren’t sustainable and taxpayers can’t afford to pay them. Others defend DB pensions, arguing the pension benefits are a type of deferred compensation and not the responsibility of taxpayers. Regardless of what side of the debate you’re on, here’s the hard reality:

  • In a DB plan, the employee receives a lifetime benefit based on years of service and salary.
  • In a DC plan, there’s no guarantee the employee will have enough or any retirement income upon retirement.

Income Inequality Worsening for Seniors

Despite the positive aspects of DB pensions, the trend against them continues, and the effects could be damaging. Several studies mentioned by NCPERS point out the reduction of retirement benefits and the shift away from DB pensions increase income inequality—even poverty—in the elderly. One study from the National Institute on Retirement Security (NIRS) found that poverty rates in senior citizen households without pensions were almost nine times higher than those with pensions.Income Inequality: The Elderly Poverty Rate is 9 times greater with no defined benefit income

The Economic Impact of NYSLRS Retirees

These are startling findings, considering the important role of pensions and retiree spending in the economy. In the US, retirees spend almost $838 billion each year, which employs millions of Americans and tens of millions indirectly. For every dollar paid in pension benefits, there’s $2.37 in economic output. In New York, retirees play an important role in the state economy. New York State and Local Retirement System (NYSLRS) retirees generate $11.3 billion in economic activity by spending $9.6 billion in the state. The pension benefits earned by NYSLRS retirees flows directly back into the local communities and economies.

As more negative changes affect DB pension plans and retiree benefits, the decrease in retiree spending will be felt throughout the economy.

“Personal income loss has a ripple effect, and everyone suffers when income inequality rises and economic growth weakens,” said NCPERS President Mel Aaronson. “Spending by retirees is vital to communities, yet local spending can easily be undermined by shortsighted changes to defined benefit pension plans.”

New York State Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli, Administrator of NYSLRS and sole trustee of the Common Retirement Fund, has often said that DC plans would put more people at risk in their retirement years. During an editorial board meeting of The Syracuse Post Standard last October 20, he also maintained that switching to a defined contribution plan won’t change the state’s obligation to provide a pension to the 1 million people already in the system. “A 401(k) was never meant to be the substitute for a pension,” DiNapoli said.