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School workers' retirement plans are shaken by Florida Legislature's proposals

Vivian Garner has 28 years in the Florida Retirement System — 23 as a Pasco County schoolteacher, five working for parks and recreation.

She hopes to make it to her official retirement, after 30 years, and qualify for her full state pension and associated benefits.

But an assortment of bills moving through the Florida Legislature have Garner and others in a similar spot worried that their golden years won't have much luster. And they're not talking about Senate Bill 6, which would tie pay to student performance.

Rather, they're fretting over myriad measures targeting the money school employees (as well as other public workers) stand to get after they leave their professions.

"We're just really, really concerned," said Garner, who teaches physical education at Mary Giella Elementary School in Shady Hills. "We hear that the bills have died in committee, but we don't believe them. They can bring it back. … Because the budget is short, they are trying to find ways to make it up."

The Florida House ran such a maneuver just this week. A bill (HB 5701) eliminating a health insurance subsidy for retired state employees failed narrowly on the floor, only to be revived by leadership in order to get a squeaker vote in favor.

The proposals have people scared and looking for a way out.

"I've never seen a year like this, where panic has set in among the employees," said Michael Hudson, who has spent 32 years in the Pasco school district's retirement benefits division.

In a regular week, Hudson's office fields maybe five calls inquiring about retirement.

Since the bills started rolling out, the phones have been ringing off the hook. More than 100 calls came in the past week alone, he said.

The staff is small enough that at least 50 callers still await responses.

"We're trying to calm them down, telling them, 'Don't make a decision until you know what the facts are,' " Hudson said.

The Legislature might enact some of the measures, which include:

• Changing pension calculations to an average of all years worked, rather than the five highest salaried years.

• Implementing an employee contribution to the retirement plan, for the first time in decades.

• Limiting benefits to workers who have not completed 10 years of service by July 1, 2010.

But then again, the bills might never get to the governor's desk. And in some instances, Gov. Charlie Crist has said he won't sign them into law.

So while it makes sense to be prepared, Hudson said, it's also wise to see what happens first. If the Legislature winds down on schedule, he said, school employees would have all of May to file their retirement paperwork in order to avoid any new rules that take effect on July 1.

"We're trying to tell people, 'Don't jump the gun,' " Hudson said.

That doesn't stop people from worrying, though.

The United School Employees of Pasco recently held an after-hours workshop on retirement, which drew a huge crowd of employees, including many who have rarely if ever participated in union activities.

Garner and other USEP building representatives like her have reported getting more calls seeking advice on retirement.

"It's overwhelming. Nothing like this has ever happened before," said Garner, who also serves on the USEP executive board.

Secretaries ask daily what's happening to their benefits. Teachers ask how to set up consultations to make plans for the future.

Most interested are workers younger than 62 and those with less than 30 years, who would lose some of their retirement if they leave their jobs early.

"They've worked all their career with the same rules in place. They were basing their retirement on those projections," Hudson said. "Now, speculation is the rules could change before they are able to retire. That changes their outlook on things."

Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at solochek@sptimes.com or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.

Fast facts

Being considered

The Legislature might enact some of the measures, which include:

• Changing pension calculations to an average of all years worked, rather than the five highest salaried years.

• Implementing an employee contribution to the retirement plan, for the first time in decades.

• Limiting benefits to workers who have not completed 10 years of service by July 1, 2010.

School workers' retirement plans are shaken by Florida Legislature's proposals 04/02/10 [Last modified: Friday, April 2, 2010 6:48pm]
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