When California teacher Alen Ritchie retired in 2001, after 40 years in the classroom, he walked into his local Social Security Administration office and said, “I’m a teacher. Go ahead and penalize me.” And eventually, after working through the paperwork, they certainly did.
Since his retirement, Ritchie has been penalized about $81,000, or about $440 each month in Social Security payouts. There’s no doubt that the money is his. Since 1969, Ritchie has paid into Social Security from his side earnings as an income tax preparer.
But now, thanks to a 34-year-old federal law called the Windfall Elimination Provision (WEP) that affects some public employees who receive state pensions, he can’t get it back.
“It’s just so unfair,” says Sarah Borgman, Indiana State Teachers Association-Retired chair. “They’ve paid in. It’s like if you had an investment fund and they just said, ‘We’re not going to give you back your money.’”
This spring, more than a dozen NEA-Retired leaders took this message to Capitol Hill for National Retirement Security Advocacy Day, where they met and strategized with U.S. Rep. Rodney Davis (R-IL), the lead sponsor of the “Social Security Fairness Act of 2017,” (HR-1205), a bill also sponsored by U.S. Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA).
The Social Security Fairness Act of 2017 would fully repeal WEP and its legislative sister, the Government Pension Offset (GPO).
Its companion in the Senate, SB 915, has been sponsored by U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH), as well as Sens. Claire McCaskill (D-MO), Susan Collins (R-ME), Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), and Dean Heller (R-NV).
Together, GPO and WEP deprive about 9 million Americans who worked in 27 states—this includes teachers and educational support professionals, as well as firefighters, police officers, nurses, and other public-service employees—of the Social Security benefits they have earned.
In Massachusetts, for example, the laws affect about 100,000 NEA members, including nearly 20,000 education support professionals (ESPs.) In Michigan, they affect 107,000 NEA members, including nearly 30,000 ESPs.
Just imagine it: You retire after three or four decades of public service and get your first Social Security check—and it’s half as much as you expected. The reason is WEP.
What is GPO? GPO (or Government Pension Offset) reduces Social Security spousal or survivor benefits by two-thirds of the survivor’s state pension. For example, a retired educator with a state pension of $9,000 a year—who is eligible for $6,000 a year in spousal benefits—would receive zero. (Two-thirds of $9,000 is $6,000.) GPO affects 7 million Ameicans, and nine out of 10 people affected by it lose their entire spousal benefit.
What is WEP? WEP (or Windfall Elimination Provision) reduces by up to 50 percent the Social Security benefits of people who worked in jobs covered by Social Security and also in jobs not covered by Social Security. This includes educators with part-time jobs, or those who have moved from state to state. WEP affects 1.6 million beneficiaries.
Or, a different scenario: your husband or wife dies and instead of receiving a continuing share of their Social Security, a typical benefit for surviving spouses, you get nothing at all. In that case, the problem is GPO.
For decades, NEA retirees have led the charge to reverse these two laws and restore a modicum of fairness to the Social Security Administration’s dealings with public employees. “The solution is my bill,” Davis said. “But I need your help.” “You got it!” said Ritchie.
‘What are you doing to fix this mess?’
This is not the first time Davis has introduced a bill to repeal GPO and WEP. The Illinois Republican, first elected in 2013, has introduced similar bills every year since he arrived in the Capitol.
“The reason I sponsor this bill is because of my own teachers in the Taylorsville, Illinois, school district,” Davis told NEA leaders, who gathered with him in a U.S. House of Representatives conference room. “One of my teachers, my own fifth-grade teacher, brought it to my attention and it just didn’t seem fair.”
This year, Davis’ repeal bill already has 124 co-sponsors—93 Democrats and 31 Republicans—or nearly one out of every four Representatives. They include more than half of the California delegation, seven of the nine Massachusetts representatives, but just two of Florida’s 27.
Every NEA retiree should call their representatives in Congress, Davis urged, and ask them to sponsor the bill. “Ask them, ‘What are you doing to fix this mess?’” he said. “You need to hold accountable the people who implemented these provisions, and aren’t working every day to fix it.”
With more sponsors, the bill is more likely to be successful, Davis said. Its next step should be a hearing in the House Ways and Means Committee, but it has not yet been put on the calendar.
“This is an issue that I take very personally,” NEA-Retired Secretary Martha Karlovetz told Davis. “I retired from the Parkway School District in Missouri, but I live now in Florida. I am personally affected by GPO-WEP.” Karlovetz worked full-time while she studied to become a teacher, and contributed to Social Security during that time.
NEA Retired: Your Call to Action! Visit NEA’s Legislative Action Center to urge your members of Congress to support and sponsor the Social Security Fairness Act of 2017.
And, like Ritchie, for decades she has run her own business, as a travel agent. In all, she has 15 full-time years in Social Security. WEP has cost her about $79,200 since her retirement 15 years ago, and GPO promises to cost her more. When her 81-year-old husband dies—hopefully not any time soon!—she can expect to get, maybe, a paltry $14 a month from his Social Security benefits.
What’s even worse, she told Davis, is that there are plenty of teachers in the same boat, but who have no idea what GPO or WEP will mean to their retirement security. “There are new retirees who are just finding out—‘Wow! This is going to impact me!’” Karlovetz said.