As states and cities struggle to resolve paralyzing budget shortfalls by sending workers on unpaid furloughs, freezing salaries and extracting larger contributions for health benefits and pensions, a growing number of public-sector workers are finding fewer reasons to stay.
The numbers of retireesare way up in Wisconsin, where more applications to retire have been filed this year than ever before. Workers in California’s largest public employee pension systemhave retired at a steadily increasing rate over the last five fiscal years. In New Jersey, thousands more teachers, police officers, firefighters and other public workers filed retirement papers during the past two years than in the previous two years.
In part, the flood of retirements reflects a broader demographic picture. Baby boomers, wherever they work, have begun reaching the traditional retirement age.
But increasingly workers fear a permanent shift away from the traditional security of government jobs, and they are making plans to get out now, before salaries and retirement benefits retreat further.
“You start to feel like, ‘What will they do next?’ ” said Bob McLinn, 63, a labor union president who left his job with the Wisconsin Department of Corrections in March, earlier than he planned, after political leaders pressed to cut benefits and collective bargaining rights for workers.
“There’s always been this promise that if you came to work and did your job, at the end there would be your reward — a defined retirement. The idea was you could retire with respect and dignity. But that whole idea has been slashed now, and I felt like, ‘What is the point?’ ”
In some places, the rise in retirement has brought welcome and needed financial news. Kansas announced last month that it would save $34.5 million over two years because more than 1,000 workers had agreed to accept cash and health insurance incentives to leave. State officials said they had yet to determine which of the positions of departing workers they considered critical enough to refill.
But some experts and workers question the ultimate result of so much leaving, saying it is already leaving some governments short-staffed (and, in some cases, obliged to pay overtime) and at risk of losing institutional knowledge and technical expertise as older workers vanish.
“What we’re going to see is a lot of young people reinventing the wheel,” said Karen Gunderson, 56, who retired this year from her information technology job with the State of Wisconsin after 26 years, a few years sooner than she had intended, saying she felt that public workers were being “turned into scapegoats” for a troubled economy.
“We’re going to waste a lot of tax dollars with young people attempting things that were tried before. You can get people cheaper, but whether you save money, I don’t know.”
The pattern of retirements, while pronounced in some states and towns, has by no means played out everywhere. In fact, a countervailing trend — of delaying retirement and staying put — has been clear since after 2008, when the national recession and the shortage of jobs (and of potential second careers in the private sector) made people queasy about making moves at all.
Certainly, the number of state and local public-sector workers has been shrinking since the second half of 2008, a necessary, useful scaling back in the eyes of some political leaders facing major budget shortfalls. Across the nation, there were 71,000 fewer state government workers in November than there were a year ago, and 180,000 fewer local government workers, federal Bureau of Labor Statistics data shows.
But a broad survey of about 100 public retirement systems suggests a rate of retirement that has remained within a relatively steady range in recent years, said Keith Brainard, research director for the National Association of State Retirement Administrators. “Before I would call this a trend, it would need to continue for another year or two,” he said.
Still, even with lingering queasiness over jobs and the larger economy, there are other signs that the mood of public workers is turning toward retirement, a worrisome possibility for some already precarious, underfunded pension plans.