New retirement plan gets the once-over

Posted: Sunday, May 01, 2005

Julia Black is an assistant at Harborview Elementary School who helps children with special needs.

After two years of hard work, the staff watched a boy begin to run who was told he could not walk, and now Black is teaching a girl how to speak again.

"If anyone dedicates their life to children, (the government) needs to cover them somehow," she said.

At age 42, Black worries about retiring. She's told that her check will be $565 a month if she retires at age 55. Or if she retires at age 60, she will receive $1,073 a month, about 47 percent of her current salary.

As a state employee who never worked in the private sector, she will not be eligible to receive federal Social Security.

The single parent of two boys, living from paycheck to paycheck, said she wants the state to fix the retirement system so she doesn't have to contribute more money and employers can afford to pay better benefits.

A controversial bill in the Alaska Legislature seeks to reform the public employee and teacher retirement systems, known as PERS and TRS.

New employees would enter a "defined-contribution" plan that will establish an individual account for their retirement similar to 401(k) options offered by private companies.

Out of fear of the retirement system going broke, this plan will make it easier for forecasters to predict the cost of the entire system, which is estimated now at $16 billion.

Supporters of Senate Bill 141 say new employees will be attracted to a plan in which they get more control over their accounts. For example, they can choose money markets, and they can withdraw the money before retirement if necessary.

"There's a medical reimbursement account they can draw on that is tax-free income. It's affordable. It's sustainable," said Sen. Gary Wilken, R-Fairbanks, a supporter of the bill.

The bill formerly asked current employees to contribute as much as 5 percent of their paychecks, but a House State Affairs Committee amended the bill two weeks ago to say that no one has to contribute extra cash.

As a current employee, Black would not be considered for the defined contribution plan. But her situation looks grim either way, she said. Working for the state for only the past six years, under the new plan her total contribution would be minimal unless she continues to work into her 70s.

Pensions now depend on an employee's years of service and wages. But future workers will have the option to leave and take their retirement savings without financial penalties.

Not having an incentive to stay in Alaska worries many employees and teachers.

"We're going to leave these jobs to people who don't want them. We're going to leave them to people who are here because they can't find anything else to do," Black said.

Teachers in Juneau are leaving for better offers in other states. Semra Lee, who teaches kindergarten at Auke Bay Elementary School, said a fellow teacher is moving to West Virginia for a slightly better salary and an opportunity to earn a master's degree paid by the district.

"Special education teachers are dropping like flies," said Lee, speaking about teachers in the Juneau area and adding that four teachers in her school may leave after this year. Some are citing higher costs of living in Juneau as a reason, she said.

Alaska used to offer the best salary in the nation for educators and is now listed 13th behind states in New England and on the West Coast, such as Washington and some parts of California.

"You reward the people for doing an important job. Teaching isn't one that gets super-financially rewarded but a decent retirement package is nice when you're 55," said teacher Kevin Hamrick, who opposes SB 141.

Hamrick teaches investing and economics at Juneau-Douglas High School, where some of his students are already interested in planning for retirement.

But he doesn't recommend they participate in defined contribution plans because of the difficulties in managing money properly for such a long time. Some of the most intelligent people make investment mistakes, he said.

Wilken said new workers should enjoy being able to control the accounts.

Mark Guevarra, a personal banker at a local Wells Fargo, said a popular option is for people to get fixed annuities: plans that have a guaranteed return and are cost-free. The amount deposited can be redistributed into monthly checks, he said.

• Andrew Petty can be reached at

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