Georgia Shorts P/T Faculty on Retirement Benefits
Part-time workers have a hard time with benefits. Tom Hudson
hopped from job to job for years, trying to piece together a full-time paycheck from itinerant work as a part-time English professor. He paid little attention to his pay stubs while teaching at Athens Technical College in the 1990s, assuming some money went toward a Social Security account that would make retirement more comfortable.
He was wrong.
The state retirement plan that covered Hudson and a growing number of temporary Georgia workers provides no Social Security coverage. At best, critics say the plan Georgia created for temps in place of Social Security is a piggy bank dressed as a retirement plan.
At worst, they say it sets the state’s most vulnerable workers back
years in saving for old age.
“I look at the plan as an employment tax which I am forced to pay out of the already meager salary paid to part-time instructors,” said Nick Currie, a part-time teacher at Southern Polytechnic University in Marietta. Under the plan, called the Georgia Defined Contribution Plan (GDCP), the state transfers 7.5 percent of each part-timer’s paycheck into an investment fund with a small annual rate of return. The plan is no-frills: employees who move on to other jobs can withdraw their money from the fund before age 65, if they remember to file paperwork asking for it. About 20,000 workers in hundreds of agencies must participate, from part-time
doctors and custodians to summer gardeners and part-time teachers, even though some work 40 hours a week or more, Williams said. Some 1,400 work at the University of Georgia.
Those who must participate in the plan include seasonal employees, who only work part of a year; part-time employees, defined as those who work less than 20.5 hours per week, and employees who are not benefits-eligible.
The plan provides Medicare coverage but bars participation in other retirement plans. Unlike Social Security, it provides no disability coverage. Full-time students are exempt. And unlike Social Security, the state pays no matching funds on the 7.5 percent retirement deduction.
“All you’re doing is holding the money for them,” state Representative Louise McBee said. “I hate to say I don’t think it’s fair, but I really don’t. It keeps the state from having to contribute money.”
The GDCP was established in 1992 by state leaders who have saved
at least $60 million by avoiding making matching Social Security contributions to a growing segment of the state work-force: temporary, seasonal and part-time workers. Numbers of state temps and part-timers jumped from 6,000 to more than 20,000 in
the last decade, according to Cedric Williams, who manages the plan for the state Employee Retirement System.
“There appear to be some faculty members who are part-time in
status but teach a full schedule,” Currie said. “These individuals may have a much bigger complaint than I do.”
Not everyone’s a critic.
“To me that’s one of the advantages — this money is available to be
returned; it is earning some interest,” said Louis Wyatt of UGA Human Resources, who said he’s fielded few complaints on the plan. “We never see those people because they didn’t have any other benefits.”
Because of turnover, some of the $43 million in the statewide fund
is unclaimed because workers sometimes forget to seek a refund. That fact doesn’t surprise Jim McCay, who supervises part-timers at the cafeteria of the Georgia Center for Continuing Education at UGA.
“They’re sort of people who might not be paying a lot of attention,”
McCay said. “They really think they’re paying into Social Security.”
Hudson, who now holds a fulltime position at the Grady College
of Journalism and Mass Communication, says the turnover in part-time jobs probably helps quell complaints.
“I wish the state did a better job of educating people about this matter. If they don’t it may be because they choose to hide this information,” he said.
McBee herself successfully cosponsored legislation in 2000 exempting members of state boards and commissions from being forced to contribute to the plan.
But McBee, a champion of improving state benefits, said she could
hardly believe the Georgia Defined Contribution Plan was legal when she received a complaint about it recently and looked at the fine print.
Georgia created the plan, using a loophole in a 1990 federal law requiring government entities to provide Social Security to workers or coverage under a “public retirement system providing meaningful benefits.”
McBee, who serves on the state House retirement committee, says
GDCP seems to fall short of extending worthwhile benefits.
“We’re starting them out in a life of poverty in the time of retirement,” she said. “Social Security at its best is not sufficient.”
The fund provides a 4 percent annual rate of return. No one has tried to retire on it.
Williams said members receive annual statements, but participants
“I’ve never received a statement,” said Mary Porter, a part-time
UGA art teacher who has been contributing to the plan off and on since 1997.
The bill creating the plan was sponsored by state Representatives
Bill Cummings, Dubose Porter, Jeanette Jamieson and Thurbert
Baker, now the state’s attorney general and official legal adviser to the plan. Governor Zell Miller signed it into law.
Workers around the country are casting colder eyes on their retirement plans since the Enron bankruptcy, which left thousands of the company’s employees without retirement funds. Georgia public workers are no exception, in a state in which public retirement plans are rife with inconsistencies, says McBee.
Part-time faculty, who have become the norm for colleges and universities trying to balance rising enrollments and decreasing state budgets, are the latest in a line of workers to seek better retirement benefits. Other states have opted to provide Social Security coverage for their temporary workers.
McBee and other lawmakers say they’ll pursue improvements here.
“I don’t know that anything like that exists elsewhere,” said state
Senator Doug Haines, D-Athens. “It doesn’t sound fair.”
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