New York’s public employee unions are arguing, without evidence, that state lawmakers need to retroactively sweeten the pensions of workers who have been on the job for more than a decade. In fact, state and federal data show why state lawmakers shouldn’t.

The change the unions are seeking (to the way pensions are calculated) would slam New York taxpayers with more than $4 billion in new debt, instantly translating into hundreds of millions of dollars in added annual pension costs. If granted, it also wouldn’t be the last: the unions have signaled they want to roll back most of the pension reforms enacted in 2010 and 2012, and ultimately want to let public employees once more retire at age 55 with full pension and healthcare benefits.

New York State United Teachers (NYSUT), the statewide teachers’ union, argues it’s “unfair” that employees hired in the past decade have different pension benefits than those who were on the job prior to 2010.

The Legislature created those different benefits for good reason: people are living longer in retirement and costs had exploded and were becoming unsustainable. That happened, in part, because lawmakers gave into similar union demands in 2000 and allowed many employees to stop contributing to their own pensions. Employer pension costs grew from less than $1 billion in 2000 to nearly $10 billion in 2010 before peaking near $17 billion in 2015.

Sources: NYSLRS Annual Financial Reports, City of New York Financial Plans

According to the Civil Service Employees Association, these changes made public-sector jobs “less attractive” and “made it harder for the state and local governments to recruit and retain workers.”

There are a few big problems with these claims.

The first is that pensions aren’t widely understood (by job applicants or taxpayers—or state lawmakers, for that matter). Here is how New York advertises the “generous benefits package” on a typical state job:

Public employees generally don’t learn about vesting rules, retirement ages or other particulars about the pension plan until after they’re on the job.

In fact, the public employee unions lobbying against pension reform in the early 2010s were adamant that new employees didn’t understand how pensions work, going so far as to say the union needed to “think for” those younger members. At the time, Governor Cuomo had proposed letting new employees choose between a defined-benefit pension and a portable, defined-contribution plan similar to the one already offered to SUNY faculty. The unions argued employees couldn’t be trusted to decide for themselves and the proposed option has since been offered only to non-union positions (including state lawmakers, with whom it proved popular).

As the federal Employee Compensation Survey has shown, defined-benefit pensions are disappearing in the private sector, making the one offered by the state increasingly desirable. Just 15 percent of private-sector employees had the option to participate in a defined-benefit plan as of 2023, down from 20 percent in 2010. And state pensions are even more valuable because they’re guaranteed by the state Constitution and the payments are exempt from state income taxes.

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

What about the pension-related hiring difficulties alleged by CSEA?

Public employers face numerous obstacles to hiring: one of the largest happens to be self-inflicted. Hiring managers must navigate an arcane web of civil service rules (parts of which the unions, especially CSEA, have opposed reforming). These create tough situations that have applicants finding other employment before the public employer can offer them a job, or where applicants are offered a job with the caveat that they might lose it if a handful of people outperform them on a future civil service exam. Governor Hochul pushed successfully last year for minor tweaks but the civil service system still causes headaches for public employers in almost every corner of state and local government.

Despite that (and the general COVID-driven upheaval in the workforce), New York state government’s hiring continues apace.

In fact, excluding the state universities (where faculty can and often do pick the type of portable retirement plans off-limits to most state workers) and the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (which is downsizing due to the decreased prison population), New York state government is more than three-quarters of the way back to the full-time equivalent (FTE) level it had before the pandemic.

The size and makeup of the state workforce varies by season, but it has grown, year-over-year, ahead of each of the last five quarters. In fact, based on the most recent data, the state added more than twice as many jobs between Q4 2022 and Q4 2023 (5,079) as it did between Q4 2021 and Q4 2022 (2,122). That’s on top of replacements from retirements or whatever retention issues the state faces.

Source: Office of the State Comptroller

In the end, the unions aren’t looking to win a substantive argument. They’re aiming to use raw political influence to pressure Governor Hochul and the Legislature into approving measures that future generations of taxpayers will have to shoulder without recourse. They only have to be successful once—which is why taxpayers need to make sure they aren’t.


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