By Amanda Litvinov
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Jim Sproul was confident he had all his ducks in a row when he retired in 1997 after 29 years in education. As a long-time leader in his association and a past president of the Kentucky Education Association, he had assisted many members on their path to retirement and understood how the system works.
He was abundantly aware that two controversial laws—the Government Pension Offset and Windfall Elimination Provision (GPO-WEP)—could drastically reduce retirement benefits for teachers like him.
GPO reduces public employees’ Social Security spousal or survivor benefits by two-thirds of their public pension — 9 out of 10 people lose their entire spousal benefit, even if their spouse paid Social Security taxes for many years.
WEP reduces the earned Social Security benefits of an individual who also receives a public pension from a job not covered by Social Security — meaning hard-working people lose a significant portion of the benefits they have earned themselves.
But Sproul thought he would be exempt from the reduction in benefits, because he had paid into the Social Security system for the required 30 years. “Like many educators, I held second and third jobs throughout my teaching career,” Sproul explained. Unfortunately, not all of those years of Social Security-covered work met the earnings threshold.
“So imagine my shock when I handed in my paperwork to start drawing Social Security at age 65 and discovered that instead of receiving over $970 each month, I would receive only $390,” Sproul said.
Like Sproul, countless educators and other state and local employees who have dutifully served in the public sector are unfairly losing retirement benefits they or their spouses have earned because of these laws enacted in the 1970s. Finally, nearly four decades later, there are two efforts in Congress to retool or repeal GPO-WEP.
The U.S. House Ways and Means Committee held a hearing Tuesday to discuss possible reforms to GPO-WEP with the intention of treating public servants more fairly. But the National Education Association has serious concerns about one of the proposals on the table—while the Equal Treatment of Public Servants Act (H.R.711) addresses inequities perpetuated by WEP, it leaves the GPO intact and could actually broaden its application and enforcement.
H.R.711 would replace the WEP with a new “public service fairness formula” that would take into account the years a public sector employee paid into Social Security versus the years that employee paid into a public pension system while working in a position not covered by Social Security. But there are still major problems, including that fact that employees who do not vest in a public pension plan would still have their benefits reduced. Also, those who did have 30 years of Social Security-covered earnings that meet the threshold would no longer be exempt from having their benefits reduced.
A far better proposal has already been introduced. NEA strongly supports the Social Security Fairness Act (H.R.973/S.1651), which would fully repeal both the GPO and WEP.
“No one is asking for benefits they or their spouse haven’t earned,” said Sproul. “Occasionally when I’m talking to elected leaders about situations like mine, they say they are trying to prevent ‘double dipping.’ I remind them that I spent my whole career ‘double working.’”
Sproul now works full-time at the family-owned tire store where he has been employed for 37 years. He enjoys the work, and considers himself lucky.
“I don’t think I’ll ever reach 30 years of Social Security-covered work at the required threshold,” said Sproul, “but I’ll be alright. Some folks I know are really struggling without the benefits they were counting on. Lawmakers should help them.”