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Offsetting Priorities

NEA rallies to eliminate a longstanding practice that robs countless educators of full retirement benefits.

By Tim Walker

When Margaret Cagle left the private sector in 1993 to become a math teacher at Lawrence Middle School in Los Angeles, she was aware of the financial sacrifice she was about to make.

“It was not an easy decision,” Cagle, a former architect, recalls. “But our schools desperately need to recruit professionals like me to teach math and science to fill a shortage of teachers,” she says.

What she didn’t expect, however, was that her change in careers could cause her additional hardship when she retires. Because of two arcane provisions in Social Security law called the Windfall Elimination Provision (WEP) and Government Pension Offset (GPO), Cagle, a 2006 recipient of the Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science, could find her pensions penalized for devoting herself to teaching. Like her, millions of public sector employees across the country stand to lose a significant portion of their Social Security benefits earned in previous careers.

“Most of my retirement contributions to Social Security from my first career,” says Cagle, “will simply disappear.”

Passed by Congress in 1983 as part of the Social Security Act, WEP and GPO are intended to prevent high-income workers from “double-dipping” by receiving full Social Security benefits. In practice, says NEA President Reg Weaver, these laws are denying public servants the benefits they or their spouses have earned. 

NEA President Reg Weaver is pushing for action on arcane provisions in Social Security law that reduce or eliminate retirement benefits for many educators.

Photo: Leslie A. Kossoff

WEP removes the so-called “windfall” for individuals who spent part of their careers in jobs not covered by Social Security. The GPO provision reduces public employees’ Social Security spousal or survivor benefits by two-thirds of their public pension. Both offsets affect educators in 15 states: Alaska, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Georgia, Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Massachusetts, Missouri, Nevada, Ohio, Rhode Island, and Texas.

The reductions in benefits aren’t trivial. Approximately 300,000 individuals, for example, lose an average of $3,600 a year because of GPO. And since educators and other public employees move from state to state, the impact of these offsets are being felt everywhere—and are hurting efforts to attract and retain quality educators.

In early February, Weaver stood with Margaret Cagle and Representatives Howard Berman (D-CA) and Buck McKeon (R-CA) at a Washington, D.C., press conference to call for the repeal of the WEP and GPO offsets. The time for congressional action, Weaver told the two members of Congress, is long overdue.

“NEA has been proud to work with both of you for many years as we have fought to repeal these unfair offsets,” Weaver said. “But, as hard as you and we have worked, we are still waiting for action.”

The wait may soon be over. On the first day of the new Congress, the Social Security Fairness Act (H.R. 82), backed by more than 100 cosponsors, was reintroduced. The U.S. Senate soon followed by reintroducing the same bill, which would also eliminate the offsets.

Cagle is still a believer in teaching as an extraordinary opportunity to shape the future, but worries that she can’t promise prospective educators that they won’t suffer monetarily when they retire. As the country continues to face a shortage of qualified teachers, the government should be working to attract great teachers, not pushing them away, she says.

“Do we respect our teachers and education support professionals enough to ensure them a secure retirement?” Weaver asks. “Do we respect our children enough to want to provide the very best educators for them? Or do we want to keep discouraging dedicated and committed individuals from considering education professions?”

For updates on repealing the GPO and WEP offsets, and to send a letter to your member of Congress, visit NEA’s Legislative Action Center.

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