'Retire-rehire' targeted

State workers: Bipartisan support to stop employees from drawing pension and salary

February 27, 2011 

At a time when state government is slimming down its work force, there's broad agreement in Olympia that public employees shouldn't be able to draw a state pension and a salary at the same time.

Gov. Chris Gregoire and lawmakers from both parties have thrown their support this year behind various ways to narrow or end “retire-rehire” practices. Colleges and universities that have used the authority aren’t fighting to keep it.

Some call it double-dipping. Lawmakers expanded it in 2001 to deal with teacher shortages, but later set limits on how it could be used by state agencies and school districts. In many cases, though, the limits don’t apply in higher education and in some other areas.

As lawmakers look at ending the program, its former supporters are grudgingly giving it up.

“It’s served its purpose in most areas,” said John Kvamme, a lobbyist for school administrators and principals.

A retire-rehire program still is useful in remote, rural school districts, where teachers and superintendents are hard to recruit, Kvamme said.

He’d like the state to keep it for the sake of those districts, but acknowledged that across most of the state, the teacher shortages of the past aren’t as big an issue now that teachers are being laid off.

Lawmakers are responding to a report in The Seattle Times that 58 state workers, most of them at Washington State University or the University of Washington, had retired and been rehired within three months.

State law allows state employees to collect a traditional state pension and, after a brief break, return to work under the separate higher-education retirement system. Several bills aim to address that issue, which legislators and Gregoire see as a loophole in the law that should be closed.

There are also bills by Rep. Barbara Bailey, R-Oak Harbor, and Senate Minority Leader Mike Hewitt, R-Walla Walla, that would go further and reverse the 2001 retire-rehire changes entirely.

“I’ve regretted voting for that bill for the last 11 years,” Hewitt said. It had good intentions, he said, but “it looks like the system has been abused.”

Lawmakers have responded to those concerns over the past decade by limiting the program. Most teachers and state employees can now go back to work for only three full school years without losing pension benefits.

Districts and agencies would lose the ability to tap their retirees for full-time jobs under the bills introduced by Hewitt and Bailey. They could still hire retirees part-time.

The bills have broad support, with the UW, WSU and community colleges telling lawmakers they favor halting retire-rehire. Democratic Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown has signed on to Hewitt’s bill, Senate Bill 5852.

As the state faces a $4.6 billion shortfall, lawmakers are being told they can save a bit by ending retire-rehire.

The state loses money on the program because the prospect of being rehired encourages workers to retire earlier, according to a 2005 state study – further draining a pension system for older retirees that is already underfunded to the tune of more than $4 billion.

Bailey’s House Bill 1083 would save the state about $2 million, according to estimates.

Jordan Schrader: 360-786-1826 jordan.schrader@ thenewstribune.com

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