Fearing pension perk end, workers flood CalPERS with requests

October 20, 2011 12:00:00 AM PDT
Governor Jerry Brown is expected to unveil another package of pension reforms this month. He's said early this year he doesn't like a controversial perk called "airtime." It's causing a rash of state employees to grab the benefit before it disappears.

Fearing that Brown and lawmakers may soon take away a controversial retirement perk, state workers are flooding the California Public Employees' Retirement System (CalPERS) with requests for "airtime" estimates.

"Airtime" allows them to purchase up five years of additional service if they pay their share and their employer's share.

More than 12,000 state workers asked CalPERS to calculate the costs this past budget year. That's up significantly from the 8,400 and 7,300 people that inquired about it in each of the prior two years.

"Airtime" is too expensive for most state workers, but Dan Pellissier was able to buy five extra years during his 19 years of service. When he reaches retirement age, the pension check he'll receive for life will be calculated based on having 24 years under his belt.

He has since left public service and is now pushing pension reform himself. Pellissier is the president of California Pension Reform.

"California can't afford to give money away to employees any more. CalPERS under-prices the cost of the airtime benefit and all of that extra cost is just racked up on taxpayers as part of the unfunded liability," said Pellissier.

CalPERS says it is asking for enough money from employees.

"Our actuaries use a formula that is based on our rate of return of 7 and 3/4 percent. So it's priced exactly right for employees and for the state. So they're paying for the benefit that they'll receive," said CalPERS spokesman Robert Glazier.

Public employee unions say "airtime" should be least negotiated at bargaining since the perk has such little impact.

Only 50,000 state workers have bought it since the program began in 2004.

"It's really nonsense to criticize it," said Bruce Blanning, executive director, Professional Engineers in Calif. Government. "There's nothing wrong with the pension plan. There's nothing wrong with the way people put money into this. The employee pays the entire cost."

But if forecasts are off or the stock market tumbles, then taxpayers do end up footing the shortfall. CalPERS insists it usually hits its mark.

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