Texans playing key roles in social security benefit fix

Over the years, millions of retired state and local workers — including teachers, police officers and firefighters — have received sharply reduced Social Security benefits, simply because they have had multiple jobs during their careers and weren’t allowed to pay into Social Security at all of them.

It’s a case of the whole being less than the sum of the parts. Thirty-three years ago, Congress changed the Social Security benefit formula to add a “Windfall Elimination Provision,” which adjusted some former public employees’ benefits to account for the time they had not paid into Social Security while working in vital public service jobs.

While the intent was to make the system fairer, the formula actually penalizes those who have had jobs both inside and outside the Social Security system. The formula may be complex, but what’s really at stake here isn’t: a proposed bipartisan solution that saves the system money in the process.

Congressman Kevin Brady, R-The Woodlands, who chairs the House Ways and Means Committee, and Congressman Richard Neal, D-Massachusetts, have filed a bill to restore fairness in calculating Social Security benefits for these workers. It would benefit approximately 95 percent of all Texas public school teachers, as well as many retirees in teaching and other fields.

HR 711, which AARP fully supports, is also backed by another prominent Texan in Capitol Hill — Congressman Sam Johnson, R-Plano, who chairs the Social Security Subcommittee. Also actively working to fix the problem is Texan Tim Lee, who as executive director of the Texas Retired Teachers Association leads the largest association for retired public and higher education employees in the country.

Lee has been working for years on a solution that will help teachers and other affected parties. He notes that retired teachers are losing hundreds of dollars a month in much-needed Social Security benefits and that the problem may be keeping many Texans from becoming teachers at all.

Someone who knows this firsthand is retired Marine Lt. Col. Link Ermis. The 54-year-old paid into Social Security for more than 25 years before taking a job as a middle school teacher in Huntsville in 2007. If he keeps teaching for another 15 years, he told us, his teacher pension and Social Security benefits combined would amount to less than if he just took Social Security based on his past contributions. He plans to roll his teacher pension earnings into an IRA and take the lower Social Security payment.

“No matter what course I take, I’m punished because I chose to work as a teacher after military retirement,” Ermis says.

AARP President Jeannine English, who along with TRTA’s Lee recently testified to Congress about this topic, says the proposed bill represents “a fair solution that will benefit the 1.6 million workers affected by the current … policy.” This includes nearly 150,000 Texans.

Not coincidentally, AARP was founded by a retired high school principal who was inspired by the plight of a retired teacher living in a chicken coop. That led to the establishment of the National Retired Teachers Association, which is a part of AARP today. Much has changed for the better for educators over the years, but this Social Security provision has lingered on for more than three decades.

So how would public-sector workers benefit if the bill becomes law? For those already retired or turning age 62 before Dec. 31, Social Security will recalculate benefits, increasing them. For those who turn 62 after this year, the bill will raise Social Security benefits each year once their retirement begins.

At a time when retirement security is increasingly becoming out of reach for millions of workers and their families, we can ill-afford to leave any hard-earned Social Security benefits on the table.

For Patricia Vorhees, a retired elementary school teacher from Conroe, it all boils down to an issue of fairness.

“We’re entitled to the money because we earned it,” she says. “I feel that it is wrong that I, and others like me, collect a very tiny amount of the money we earned.”

Bob Jackson is director of AARP Texas, a nonprofit organization with nearly 38 million members nationally, including 2.3 million in Texas.

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