Tighten public safety retire-rehire rules

The News TribuneDecember 24, 2013 

The Legislature has already reformed lax pension policies that were being exploited by some state workers and teachers. It’s time to do the same for the LEOFF Plan 2 pension system that applies to firefighters and law enforcement officers.

Current LEOFF rules allow public safety officers to retire, start receiving often very generous pension benefits, then draw a salary in another government job – as long as it’s not full-time work or fully compensated. The intent of the rules was to allow those workers to make career changes into less demanding government work.

But an Associated Press investigation earlier this year found several instances of public safety officers exploiting a loophole in current rules. They retire, then get hired to do essentially the same job by another jurisdiction – while still receiving their pension. They’ve avoided having their pensions suspended by claiming not to be working full-time or by technically being consultants, not actual employees.

That’s splitting hairs, and it shouldn’t be allowed. The Legislature should go along with rule revisions the LEOFF Plan 2 Retirement Board intends to recommend in the 2014 session: to suspend pension payments if a retiree returns to work in any similar LEOFF-eligible job, no matter how many hours they work, what compensation they receive or whether they’re contractors instead of actual employees.

That’s only fair. Teachers have jobs that can be at least as stressful as many in public safety, especially those in administrative positions. Yet teachers – whose retirement benefits average about half those of LEOFF workers – would have their pensions suspended were they to work more than 867 hours a year in another government job.

One positive result of tightening the LEOFF retire-rehire rules: Public safety officers with valuable experience might stay on the job longer. Currently many are retiring in their 40s or early 50s because they can be paid to do their jobs and have a pension, too.

Public safety employees who want to double-dip – draw a salary as well as a pension – should look to jobs in the private sector. Making a horizontal move into a similar job in the public sector isn’t really retiring, so any pension benefits ought to wait.

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