“Teachers are not asking for money they or their spouse did not contribute, just their full Social Security benefit,” Preston teacher Susan Strader explained in written testimony to Congress. “With the nationwide teacher, police, health care worker, and other personnel shortages facing our nation, legislators should be working on a bipartisan basis to fix the issue today, not days, weeks, months, or years in the future.”
Congress’ Ways and Means Committee held the first hearing on the Windfall Elimination Provision (WEP) and Government Pension Offset (GPO) in more than 15 years yesterday to hear from Americans who have been unfairly penalized by these federal provisions that reduce or eliminate their earned Social Security benefits. The Committee met in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, to hear from public servants, including a teacher, about how WEP/GPO erode their security in retirement—and more than 500 Connecticut educators including Strader sent in written testimony to underscore the need for change.
WEP/GPO reduces the amount educators who have paid into social security are eligible to receive when they retire—and also significantly lowers or eliminates the spousal benefit retired teachers are able to collect through their partners. With the House of Representatives (HR 82) and Senate (S 597) each considering legislation that would repeal WEP/GPO, now is a crucial juncture for teachers to actively engage in this conversation. While Connecticut’s Congressional Delegation is fully in support of repealing WEP/GPO and Congressman Larson has been out in front of the issue, members of Congress from states where public servants aren’t affected by the provisions have historically been hard to mobilize to support repeal.
Paula Porter, a retired educator from the Terrebonne Parish School System in Louisiana, is now 80 and has never been able to collect a cent of her husband’s Social Security benefits. She told the House Committee on Ways and Means that he passed away at age 61 before being able to collect any of his benefits himself, leaving her with five children ages 10 to 15, hospital bills, and a mortgage. She had to take on additional jobs to makes end meet since she did not qualify for a widow’s benefit through Social Security. She ended up postponing her own retirement, and after finally retiring from teaching at 68, worked other jobs for years as she was unable to collect her husband’s or her own Social Security benefits.
“I always believed I should have received a benefit that my husband’s Social Security contributions would have given me,” Porter said. “Just because I chose a career in education, I am denied a benefit that I may have otherwise qualified for if I were not a teacher. Life would have been so much easier.”
Active and retired educators from Connecticut had their own versions of Porter’s story to share in their written testimony to Congress.
A 74-year-old retired educator, Melissa Robbins wrote that she and her husband have a combined total of over seventy years teaching in Connecticut public schools. To supplement their teaching income they both worked many part-time jobs and paid into Social Security through those jobs. Her husband also spent four years in the United States Coast Guard during the Vietnam Era.
“Despite our contributions, our Social Security benefits are greatly reduced because of the Windfall Elimination Provision,” Robbins explained. “Once the deduction for Medicare Part B has been subtracted, my husband’s Social Security check is $18. Although mine is higher, it is only $102.”
New Canaan teacher Ronna Van Veghel shared with the Committee that her husband passed away suddenly four years ago. “It was quite a shock to our family. He had retired from his job one week before. He had never had the opportunity to collect his Social Security benefits even though he had contributed to them for 50 years. And because I am a teacher, I was not able to collect anything from his benefits as well. We were married for 32 years. All the money he contributed went right back into the hands of Social Security at a time when we needed it the most.”
She added, “Had I not been a teacher, I would have been able to collect his benefits. I am not able to retire now because of this unfair penalty. I have spent my life as a teacher, serving students in the most important role there is, yet I have been punished because of these penalties.”
WEP/GPO particularly adversely affects career changers like Strader who come to teaching later in life after paying into Social Security for years but would have to work long past a standard retirement age to receive full pension benefits.
“I came into education later in life after having a corporate job and staying home to raise our two boys,” she explained. “I worked fulltime and went back to graduate school to get my Connecticut teaching certification and master’s degree (MAT) all while raising a family because I am passionate about teaching and education. As a career changer I unknowingly forfeited my full contributed Social Security benefit, and I will never be able to realize a full Connecticut teaching pension benefit either due to my age and time in position. I will also not be eligible for my husband’s full Social Security benefit if he predeceases me.”
CREC teacher Michael Martin told the Committee that he must work three jobs to make ends meet. “I pay into Social Security on half of my income. It is a slap in the face to pay teachers so little that they must work two or three jobs to support themselves and then not afford them the benefits they paid for in retirement. As a new shortage area teacher, I would not recommend teaching to any of my friends or family, and I am planning to leave the field after my fifth year. WEP/GPO is driving people away from a field that is both essential for the public good and hopelessly desperate for workers. It’s a disservice to teachers and by extension, a disservice to public school children across the U.S.”
Many teachers agreed that WEP/GPO is driving people away from the profession and forcing out educators once they learn how the penalties will negatively impact their retirement.
“Education is in the midst of a crisis, a massive teacher shortage, and my observation is that the WEP is a contributing factor,” wrote New Milford teacher Doranne Koval. “This targets teachers and is one more thing that makes teaching less desirable for new educators and current educators to remain in education. I’ve watched newer teachers find out about WEP early on in their career and leave the profession in pursuit of careers that will afford them a 401K and their full Social Security when they retire. Eliminating the WEP is one step in the right direction to solving the teacher shortage and retaining good educators.”
There’s still time to share your story through written testimony and encourage Congress to take action and repeal WEP/GPO once and for all. Submit your testimony here.