The pandemic upended our education system last March, when schools closed and teachers and students were forced to pivot to online learning with little to no time to prepare. Laptops and iPads were frantically ordered and allotted to students, Wi-Fi hotspots were distributed to students in rural areas, and everyone quickly learned how to Zoom. During this time, society praised teachers for their herculean efforts in figuring out how to educate children during a global pandemic. They were recognized as unsung heroes for performing duties far beyond teaching; they are counselors, mentors, disciplinarians, psychologists, nurses, nutritionists, mediators, cheerleaders and so much more.
Yet teachers are not paid like heroes. Like many female-dominated industries, teachers are systematically undervalued and underpaid in our society. To make matters worse, teachers in California are victims of a discriminatory retirement penalty that robs them of hundreds or even thousands of dollars a month in retirement benefits.
Unlike most employees in California, teachers do not pay Social Security payroll taxes from their teaching salaries and, as a result, do not receive Social Security benefits. Rather, they pay into the California State Teachers Retirement System, known as CalSTRS, and receive retirement benefits from CalSTRS.
The problem arises from two federal laws that penalize teachers when they retire: the Government Pension Offset, or G.P.O., and the Windfall Elimination Provision, or WEP. These laws affect: 1) teachers who also had non-teaching jobs for which they paid Social Security payroll taxes, and 2) teachers with spouses who paid Social Security payroll taxes.
Let’s use an example to illustrate this problem. Jane Doe is a 67-year-old retired teacher in California. She is receiving a CalSTRS retirement benefit of $1,800 per month. Jane is married to John Doe, a 67-year-old retired electrician. John Doe paid Social Security payroll taxes during his career and now receives Social Security benefits of $1,500 per month. John tragically passes away, and Jane applies for John’s Social Security benefits as his surviving widow. Jane learns that she will receive just a fraction of John’s Social Security benefits because she is a teacher. All of Jane’s friends who are widows and not retired teachers receive their spouses’ full Social Security benefits. Why can’t Jane receive John’s full Social Security benefits?
The G.P.O. is a federal law that affects workers with government pensions (i.e., teachers) who would otherwise be entitled to receive Social Security spousal or survivor benefits. The G.P.O. reduces the amount of those benefits by two thirds. Using Jane’s example, two-thirds of Jane’s CalSTRS pension of $1,800 per month (or $1,200) will be deduced from John’s Social Security benefits of $1,500, leaving Jane with just $300. So instead of receiving John’s full $1,500 per month, Jane receives only $300.
It gets worse. Let’s assume that before Jane began working as a teacher, she worked as a nurse and paid Social Security payroll taxes. When she retired, she applied for Social Security benefits. The WEP reduces Social Security benefits based on earnings for persons who also are eligible for a CalSTRS retirement benefit through a complicated formula. You can read more about the WEP at calstrs.com/post/windfall-elimination-provision. Thus, Jane is doubly penalized in the amount of Social Security benefits she can receive as a result of her career as a teacher-hero.
There is some hopeful news. Congressman Rodney Davis (R-IL) has reintroduced the “Social Security Fairness Act” (H.R. 82) which would eliminate the WEP and the G.P.O.:
“This bipartisan bill ensures that a teacher who spends his or her summers working a second job or a police officer who changes careers after years of service will not face a possible 40 percent reduction in their Social Security benefits,” Davis said. “By repealing these outdated provisions that unfairly penalize public servants… we can provide some certainty to retirees while helping to recruit future teachers, firefighters, and police officers.”
H.R.82 is a bipartisan bill that is co-sponsored by 111 Congress members, including Jared Huffman. If you think the G.P.O. and WEP are unfair and should be repealed, please contact Jared Huffman (or the Congress person who represents you) and indicate your support for H.R. 82. In addition, tell your friend in other states to contact their Congress persons and urge them to support the bill. Let’s put an end to these discriminatory laws that penalize our heroes when they retire!
Jill Manning Sartori is lawyer, school board trustee and daughter of a retired teacher who inspired her to research and write about this issue. She lives in Tomales with her husband, daughter and Australian shepherd.