This editorial will appear in Thursday’s print edition.
For some state workers, the promise of a generous pension just isn’t enough. They also want to start collecting it while they’re still working.
The Seattle Times found that 2,000 people collect both wages and retirement pay from the state. Fifty-eight of those were rehired into full-time positions within three months of their retirement, the majority in higher education. The vice president for business and finance at Washington State University, for example, collects an extra $105,000 on top of his already cool $304,000 salary.
State law prohibits workers from collecting a pension if they left with the understanding that they would be hired back. But often these deals are done with a wink and a nod.
WSU’s emergency management coordinator continued to answer work e-mails and requests for assistance during his “retirement.” Chris Tapfer’s bosses rehired him without so much as advertising his position, and he returned to work a few days after the minimum retirement period of one month. A colleague ribbed him in an e-mail, asking “What took so long?”
Defenders of double-dipping say the practice allows employers to keep in-demand executives, avoid the expense of hiring and training someone new, and reward dedicated employees with the ability to collect what’s due them.
But retire-rehires also amount to a sanctioned milking of the retirement system – and taxpayers. Many of these “retirees” are drawing benefits from a pension system that’s already $4 billion in the red.
Legislators have been trying to crack down on double-dipping since at least 2003 – with some success. Most state employees now face the loss of some pension benefits if they return to work for more than 40 percent of the hours they worked previously.
The snag is that colleges and universities usually have their own retirement systems in addition to the state’s. So when employees retire off the state system, they return to work under the school’s plan.
State pension experts think that setup might put those workers beyond the reach of any prohibition against double-dipping that state lawmakers could devise. But colleges and universities don’t need a new law, just a little backbone.
WSU president Elson Floyd decided recently to put a stop to the practice – albeit three years after joining the university and after the Times had begun reporting its story. In April, he sent a message to university managers, calling the retire-rehire practice not in the “best interest of the institution.”
Other university and college administrators should be sending the same message. But don’t count on it when they themselves are in on the act.
Rich Rutkowski, president and chief executive at Green River Community College, retired for a month in 2001. He now collects $64,000 in retirement benefits on top of his $179,000 salary. His leave of absence was blessed by the college’s trustees.
That is where the ultimate responsibility lies – with college and university governing boards. They should be setting the tone for a collegiate culture that doesn’t endorse gaming the system.