When Jane Roth’s husband died eight years ago, she made an appointment with the local Social Security office in New Haven. She was thinking about retiring in a few years, and she wanted to get her finances in order.
What she discovered surprised her.
Because of a law enacted in 1977, Roth, a special education teacher in the New Haven Public Schools, will not be eligible to receive any part of her husband’s Social Security benefits — an amount that now equals about $31,500 yearly.
“He worked all his life contributing to social security. And that was his intent — was that I would be getting whatever the going rate was for the rest of my life on top of whatever teacher pension I had,” Roth told CT Examiner.
The law, known as the Government Pension Offset, limits and, at times, even eliminates the amount that teachers in certain states can receive from their spouse’s social security benefits.
As a young teacher, Roth opted to part-time work so that she could raise her children. When her daughter was born, she said, she had six years of teacher’s retirement, which she took out. When she went back to work in the year 2000, she was starting again at zero.
Because of the way the Teacher’s Retirement System works in Connecticut, Roth cannot collect her full retirement pension — 75 percent of the averaged top three salary years — until she has taught for 37 and a half years. For Roth, who is now 73, that would mean she would not be able to retire until she was 87 years old.
According to Roth’s calculations, if she were to retire now, she would receive about $45,000 a year.
“So I have two choices. I can retire and live on a partial pension, with no social security —- and then god knows what would happen. I’d certainly have to move from where I live, and who knows where I would be,” said Roth. “Or I could wait until I’m 87 and a half, and then at least I’d have my full retirement.”
This law affects teachers in 15 states across the country, including Connecticut. In some states, it also applies to police officers or other municipal workers. A second law, called the Windfall Elimination Provision, limits the amount that a teacher can collect in social security benefits from prior jobs or if they work a second job that pays into the fund.
Teachers in Connecticut have been calling for a repeal of both of these provisions, and legislators in the U.S. Congress, including legislators representing Connecticut, have signed off on several bills supporting the repeal of these laws. But so far, the proposed bills have not gained enough signatures to make it onto the House or Senate floor.
Susan Strader, a computer technology teacher at Preston Public Schools, told CT Examiner that she is also affected by the Windfall Elimination Provision. Before becoming a teacher, she worked as a senior buyer at Electric Boat. After taking some time off to raise her children, Strader became a teacher.
Strader, now 64, has been teaching for 14 years, and is planning to retire next year. But she said that she’s going to find herself in a bind financially, at least for the first year. Because of the amount of time she has been teaching, she said, she will receive only a portion of the full teacher’s pension. At the same time, the Windfall Elimination Provision means that her monthly social security benefits, which would have equaled $1,600 per month, will be decreased to between $900 and $1,000.
Strader said she believed that one of the reasons these provisions didn’t attract much attention was because they affected a workforce that is primarily made up of women. She said that when these provisions were enacted, it was assumed that women were not the primary breadwinners in their household.
“Those were still times that society felt like the husband’s going to care for the wife, right?” said Strader. “We were still in that mindset that women weren’t independent enough to have to worry about their retirement or their future because the husband was going to always take care of you.”
Marianne Maloney, a math teacher in the New Haven Public Schools, said that the Windfall Elimination Provision meant that she would also lose a portion of her social security. Maloney worked as a teacher in private schools and at Central Connecticut State University until age 50, when she began teaching in New Haven.
Maloney said that when she retired, the yearly $20,000 she would have received in social security would be decreased to about $14,000. Additionally, because she had only worked for a short time in the public school system, her pension would be only a small percentage of her yearly teaching salary. Like Roth, she would have to work until age 87 in order to get her full teacher’s pension.
Jocelyn Delancy, vice president of the Connecticut Education Association and a member of a national task force on the repeal of the Government Pension Offset and the Windfall Elimination Provision, said that she felt that while people did support a repeal, there were conflicting feelings about how social security should be addressed.
These differences are reflected in the various bills aimed at changing these provisions. One bill, H.R. 82, simply eliminates the Government Pension Offset and the Windfall Elimination Provision. A second bill, introduced by Connecticut Congressman John Larson, also eliminates these provisions, but does so as part of a larger overhaul of Social Security that includes a cost-of-living adjustment, increased minimum benefits for widows and an overall increase in benefits. Larson told CT Examiner in a statement that he would pay for his plan through an increased tax on people making over $400,000 a year.
Multiple members of Congress representing Connecticut, including Sens. Richard Blumenthal and Chris Murphy and Reps. Larson, Jahana Hayes and Rosa DeLauro told CT Examiner that they support the elimination of the two provisions.
“Repealing these provisions is about basic fairness. Teachers and other public servants who have devoted their careers to serving our state should not be penalized because of these unjust rules,” said Blumenthal in a statement. As senator, he introduced one of the bills and co-sponsored another.
DeLauro said she believed that “we should be thanking retirees for their public service, not penalizing them for it.” And Congresswoman Jahana Hayes, a former teacher in Connecticut, said in a statement that she believed the provisions needed to be repealed if the nation wanted to attract young people to become teachers.
“I know personally what this rule means for families, having worked as a teacher, married to a police officer. Like so many of my colleagues, I paid into social security for more than forty quarters having worked part time and summer jobs throughout my career,” said Hayes.
According to Hayes’ office, repealing the government pension offset would increase Social Security benefits for affected teachers by an average of $670 per month, and repealing the Windfall Elimination Provision would increase benefits by an average of $330 per month.
But Hayes’ office also noted that repealing those provisions could cost around $180 billion over 10 years.
Delancey and Maloney argued that teachers are not asking for anything more than what they have already paid into social security.
“The Social Security is my own. I earned it. I worked all those years … the government’s supposed to invest and give them back to me at retirement,” said Maloney.
Strader said that having the Windfall Elimination Provision would discourage people who had been in the workforce from becoming teachers as a second career.
“When you’re in a teacher shortage that we are in across the nation, but critically in Connecticut as well. You want to be able to tap into all of those employee streams that you might be able to get. And because of the pandemic, a lot of people changed their careers,” said Strader.
Delancey said that the Government Pension Offset and the Windfall Elimination Provision affect about 2.5 million teachers across the country, but that this isn’t a true reflection of the effect, since it only counts the teachers who have already retired, not those who are still actively working.
Roth said that one of the things that bothers her most about these two provisions is that if she hadn’t gone to the social security office, she wouldn’t have known they existed. Although the government requires employers to disclose that these programs exist, Roth said she thinks the disclosure was buried among all the other papers teachers have to sign when they start a new job.
And once you retire — she said — you can’t take it back.
“I would have found out by surprise. I would’ve gotten a letter from Social Security saying, since you’re collecting your pension now, you’re no longer entitled to entitlement,” said Roth. “Teachers don’t know this until they become widows and widowers — or really until after they retire.”