Retirement plan costly

By Brian Slupski

An early retirement plan now in effect for the State Employees Retirement System is causing massive retirements of highly skilled people in many departments—the intended purpose of the plan.

The plan is designed to encourage early retirement of some of the most experienced and skilled workers in the state. The idea is that this will generate savings by reducing the state payroll as the highest paid employees retire.

Bob Knox, associate executive secretary for SERS, said usually in a 12-month time period his office handles about 1,300 retirement requests. But with the plan, his office is expected to handle around 5,000 requests in a six-month period, the equivalent of nearly four years work in half a year.

To handle the influx of work, Knox said he has had to hire 10_12 temporary employees and schedule 1,000 hours of overtime.

“We can’t have temporary people to cover the actual calculation of benefits, and that’s where the overtime comes in,” Knox said.

Knox said that departments like transportation and mental health have lost experienced skilled people.

“Savings may come from departments which don’t fill vacated positions, or don’t fill them quickly,” Knox said.

John Burke, spokesman for the department of transportation, said his department is projecting a loss of around 10 percent of their employees.

He said several engineers and other skilled people have retired. The department will attempt to offset this loss by shifting responsibilities, and by promoting from within.

He said there is a great amount of competition at entry level positions in engineering, so finding people to promote will not be difficult.

Mental health might be a department which could have difficulty filling vacated positions. Director of the Office of Legislative and Public Affairs Pat Alvarez said her department “certainly have lost some people who have been with us a long time and know the system.”

She said in the past it has been very difficult recruiting doctors, nurses and other counselors. Unlike the department of transportation, promoting from within and shifting responsibilities is not an easy task, or always an option for a department like mental health.

“If we are not able to attract and fill these positions, the effects could be very detrimental to our ability to provide adequate care for our patients,” Alvarez said.

NIU might be in a similar situation to that of the mental health department if the State University Retirement System is added under the plan, which could happen by spring.

JoAnn Bergeron, assistant manager of NIU’s insurance office, said she sees potential problems at the university if departments lose their entire hierarchy.

She said she doesn’t see big savings the government would expect because the expected savings are based on the assumption that many positions will remain unfilled or will not be filled quickly.

At NIU, hundreds of employees leave every year and are replaced, she said. Most of the positions which would be vacated because of the plan would probably also be refilled, and this would reduce the projected savings, she said.