Why don’t more state workers choose CalPERS?

If public pensions are such a good deal, why are a surprising number of state workers, 44 percent, leaving the first two years of their retirement contributions in a 401(k)-style individual investment plan rather than moving them to CalPERS?

The early returns on a little-known cut in state worker pension costs, enacted six years ago as part of the first Schwarzenegger budget, touched off a brief pensions-vs.-401(k) exchange at a CalPERS board meeting last month.

Members representing labor were mystified about why workers would ignore the obvious financial advantage of moving their money to CalPERS and getting two years of service credit for pensions.

A member representing the Schwarzenegger administration suggested that a changing workforce may now have a number of young workers who do not plan to stay in state government, making a 401(k) transferable to another employer a good choice.

The board was told that CalPERS staff could only speculate about why 44 percent of the workers failed to submit a choice, which leaves the first two years of their retirement contribution in a 401(k)-style plan.

For example, the workers may not have understood the material asking them to choose, the material may have been discarded unopened, or workers may have known that not submitting a choice is the same as choosing a 401(k)-style plan.

“But again, we are not sure,” Darryl Watson, the California Public Employees Retirement System member services chief, told the board.

The Alternate Retirement Program for state miscellaneous and industrial workers was created in 2004 by the first Schwarzenegger budget, part of a plan to pay some of the annual state pension cost with a $949 million 20-year bond.

To settle a lawsuit filed by the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, the administration agreed to enact pension savings to offset the cost of the bond. But the bond was never issued.

Nevertheless, a bill in the budget package still puts the employee retirement contribution of most state workers, 5 percent of pay, into a 401(k)-style plan during their first two years on the job.

The state saves money during the two years by not making the employer contribution, now about 17 percent of pay. But the state must pay any additional future pension cost resulting from skipping the employer share for two years.

A legislative committee analysis of the bill, SB 1105, said the plan was expected to save the state $2.5 billion over 20 years. Interest payments could have pushed the cost of repaying the $949 million pension bond to around $2 billion.

Now the bill gives Schwarzenegger some immediate reduction in pension costs, but far less in the long run than his briefly backed proposal in 2005 to switch new hires to 401(k) plans or his proposal last year to give new hires lower retirement benefits.

The Alternate Retirement Program has $82 million invested from 35,000 workers, said Lynelle Jolley, a spokeswoman for the Schwarzenegger administration’s Department of Personnel Administration.

The department also administers the tax-deferred 401(k)-style investment option available to state workers, the Savings Plus Program, with $7.2 billion invested from 143,000 active workers and 27,000 retirees.

Both programs, the Alternate and the Savings Plus, offer a range of low-cost investment choices. There is no employer contribution to Savings Plus, but workers can invest up to $16,500 a year.

New workers entering state employment are told that their retirement contribution, 5 percent of pay for most, will go into a 401(k)-style plan for the first two years. In the 25th month, the contribution automatically switches to CalPERS.

Because of rules for tax-deferred plans, the money cannot be taken out of the 401(k)-style plan until two years after contributions stop. Then workers get a three-month period (months 47 through 49) to choose one of three options for their investment account:

Transfer the money to CalPERS and receive two years of service credit for a pension, take all of the money in a lump sum, or convert to a 401(k) Savings Plus plan that remains with the Department of Personnel Administration.

And as noted, if the worker does not select an option during the three-month period, the money stays with the department in a 401(k)-style account.

The CalPERS board was told that workers get a series of alerts about the three-month decision period: a postcard from the department, a marketing letter from CalPERS, and two postcards from the largest state worker union, SEIU Local 1000.

The “election” packet offering the three options goes out on month 47. The CalPERS board received a report on the decisions of 7,467 workers, beginning with the first in September 2008 and continuing through January of this year.

The number who chose CalPERS, 46 percent, was nearly matched by those, 44 percent, who made no choice and remained in a 401(k)-style plan. A lump sum was chosen by 9 percent, and only 1 percent chose a 401(k) plan.

A breakdown of the 44 percent who did not choose an option showed that 32 percent or 2,366 were active CalPERS members and 12 percent or 908 were no longer working for the state.

Most of the response to a limited follow-up survey after the option period, 88 percent, came from members who made a choice. Among those who did not make a choice, the top reasons were not understanding the election material and missing the deadline.

After the skewed response to the mail survey, the CalPERS staff tried again with a month-long telephone survey of members who did submit a choice.

“We ran into a lot of difficulty there too in terms of being able to contact them and them being willing to talk to us,” Watson, the member services chief, told the board. “It was a very frustrating process. But again, we will endeavor to continue to determine why they did not submit a form.”

Board member Priya Mathur, correcting herself when told the Alternate Retirement Program was not created through labor bargaining, asked if a change could be made so that not choosing resulted in the CalPERS option, instead of the 401(k).

“I don’t believe that’s something DPA would support,” said Greg Beatty, a board member representing the Department of Personnel Administration. He said CalPERS could, of course, sponsor legislation to make the change.

The two board members also asked for additional information about the workers who do not make a choice for their retirement investments during the three-month window.

Beatty asked if it would be possible, maybe a year from now, to see how many had changed their minds and decided to buy service credits later.

Mathur said it would be interesting to know how many leave their state jobs sooner than average “to see if the assumption that they might be short-term employees actually bears out.”

Reporter Ed Mendel covered the Capitol in Sacramento for nearly three decades, most recently for the San Diego Union-Tribune. More stories are at https://calpensions.com/ Posted 1 June 10

9 Responses to “Why don’t more state workers choose CalPERS?”

  1. drtaxsacto Says:

    Gee, this is a tough one. How about a basic principle of diversification of risk? A young worker who is starting with the state and expecting to make a career of it will be able to retire with public pension but will also have quite a healthy nest egg that would function like an IRA. The employee who makes no election to PERS until the end of the two years, has some flexibility that one who chooses the PERS option does not.

    A second explanation could be with the 12% who are no longer working for the state.

    A third explanation could be that the state does not do a great job of explaining the option of conversion. Employees have a limited time in making the decision and may simply miss the urgency.

    The first explanation is the most credible.

  2. SF state employee Says:

    I don’t think it’s that complicated. How many people ignore 401(k)/pension election options, regardless of the default option, in all employment sectors? I believe that studies have shown that a large percentage of people simply accept the default, whatever it is.

    Why? Because retirement is a long way off, especially for younger workers, and too abstract for many to care about. I wonder if that 44% is consistent across age groups? Pay levels?

  3. Valued State Worker Says:

    “Both programs, the Alternate and the Savings Plus, offer a range of low-cost investment choices. There is no employer contribution to Savings Plus, but workers can invest up to $16,500 a year.”

    It should be noted that the ARP does NOT offer a range of investment choices during state workers’ first two years of service. These workers are limited to a short term investment account that is currently earning a paltry return of just a bit more than one percent. These employees should be offered a choice of investments. This could be one reason why CalPERS participation is lower than expected since workers might look at how little their ARP 401k is growing and simply figure the issue isn’t worth their attention.

  4. jskdn Says:

    It should be obvious that many people are bad at managing their retirements and that lack of action is very often the norm. That’s why many retirement reform advocates want contributions to retirement to be the default rather than the other way around. I’ve known highly intelligent, highly paid and highly taxed technical workers who actually didn’t exercise available 401k options that were matched by employers, forgoing an immediate 100% return on pretax/tax-deferred income.

    What’s clear in this case is that those who did make a choice overwhelmingly chose the CalPers option, at 44 to 1 among those who didn’t opt for another often-imprudent human behavior, taking the money now instead of saving it for future retirement needs.

  5. Wayne Martin Says:

    The issue is a lot more complicated that suggested by the article. Unlike the private sector, government agencies in California have outsourced their retirement funding management to CalPERS and CalSTRS. As such, these organizations have no responsibility to provide any post-retirement financial planning, leaving this planning up to the individual.

    It’s not hard to understand that most people under 40 years of age have little real interest in this matter. If their parents were financially savvy, then they might, but otherwise .. they could well be in their late forties before they give much thought to retirement, and financing the rest of their life.

    What is missing in this picture is a comprehensive, an well-documented, compensation model for government, and personal financial planning models linked to the salaries that government sector workers command, and the pensions that will be paid out–based on those salaries.

    The following short paper attempts to look at such a model:

    The conclusions are eye-opening, should local government agencies not wake up and begin to recognize the black hole they have created.

  6. worker bee Says:

    I personally missed the deadline to choose CALPERS. And now I’m stuck with the 401(k). I’m one of the young workers you’re talking about. The only communication I received was a dense, 2-page letter saying it’s time to choose one of the 3 options. I scanned the letter, didn’t think it was anything urgent or important, and filed it away. I finally came upon it again when I was looking through my documents at tax time this year. I had missed the deadline to switch to CALPERS over a year ago. Then I went to talk to an HR person at my company about it. She said many people were in the same situation as I am – they simply didn’t know about it, maybe received something in the mail but never paid attention to it. I asked a young coworker of mine. He said he had no idea, and probably received something in the mail but never read it. There’s your first-person anecdote. I would’ve most likely chosen the CALPERS option if I realized what the letter said was of any importance. Poor communication from CALPERS and our HR department is the culprit here.

  7. jhl Says:

    I feel CalPers is taking advantage of poor communication, simply make benefit from Lots of young people missing transfer.

    They should send us the email! not some card normally people just ignore.

  8. jhl Says:

    if put automatically transfer from APR to CalPERS if people missing file the form, then what will happen?

    We used to trust CalPERS always work for out benefit, but obviously , not this time.

  9. em Says:

    I just got my postcard and feel like I actually don’t want the two year service credit and I would rather try to grow the $6000 in a 401k on my own using more aggressive investments, so I’m glad I don’t automatically have to enroll in calpers, but can anyone convince me otherwise and that enrolling in calpers for the extra $100 a month when I retire is worth it (equivalent to the 2 year service credit)

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