Richmond Times-Dispatch: Retired public workers battle for full Social Security benefits in new year

RICHMOND TIMES-DISPATCH, MICHAEL MARTZ

Thomas Brown has worked since he was 16 years old. He’s worked in restaurants, repaired tractor-trailers, served in the U.S. Air Force and spent more than 25 years in the U.S. Postal Service, taking care of the machines that process mail. 

Even while working at the postal service, Brown made ends meet with a part-time job in building maintenance, and he kept working in private-sector jobs after leaving the federal civil service 20 years ago.

Now 74, living in Highland Springs, he receives pension benefits he earned over 30 years in the military and civil service, but his monthly check from Social Security isn’t close to what he expected for the years he contributed to the national retirement savings plan.

Instead, Brown receives about one-third of the benefit he believes he earned — less than $600 a month of the nearly $1,800 to which he says he’s entitled.

“You earned the daggone money — they shouldn’t take it from you,” he said.

Rep. Abigail Spangberger, D-7th, agrees. The three-term Virginia congresswoman introduced legislation this year with Rep. Garret Graves, R-La., to repeal two 40-year-old provisions of the Social Security Act that were intended to prevent public sector retirees from “double-dipping’ with pension benefits, but instead block them from receiving the full benefits to which they say they are entitled for work outside of public service.

“It is absolutely just an issue of fairness,” Spanberger said in an interview.

She first heard of the “Windfall Elimination Provision” and “Government Pension Offset” when campaigning in 2018 for her first term in a district that then included parts of Henrico County, where she lives, and Chesterfield County. She was appearing at a meeting of the National Active and Retired Federal Employees Association when a woman who had lost her husband tried to explain the disputed provisions of the Social Security Act.

“I remember thinking, ‘She must be explaining it wrong, because what she’s saying seems enormously unfair,'” Spanberger recalled.

This is the second time that she has tried to repeal the two provisions of the law. One, the Windfall Elimination Provision, hurts retirees such as Thomas Brown by sharply cutting the earnings subject to the Social Security benefits formula; the other, the Government Pension Offset, applies to people such as the widow at the association meeting, who are eligible for benefits both from their deceased spouse’s Social Security-covered earnings and their own government pension plan. 

Brown is one of almost 48,000 Virginians who are receiving less in Social Security benefits than they would be entitled to if they were not also receiving retirement benefits from pension plans to which they contributed while working in government jobs under the Windfall Elimination Provision of the law, according to the Congressional Research Service. The Government Pension Offset, aimed at spousal death benefits, affects almost 7,900 Virginians. 

Federal employees are not the only retirees affected by the law. The provisions also apply to other government workers, such as many public school teachers, firefighters and police officers, including the U.S. Capitol Police.

For example, Robert Callahan retired in 2006 after 29 years as a Fairfax County police officer. He had contributed 12.5% of his earnings to the Fairfax County Police Officers Retirement System, but he also had contributed to Social Security in jobs he worked before joining the police department and as an officer at two other local governments for a total of 16 years.

Callahan stopped working full time this year and began receiving his Social Security benefits in June at age 67 years and three months. He calculated that his benefit should have been $2,224 a month, but the Windfall Benefit Provision reduced the monthly benefit to $1,658, a difference of $566 a month. He does not think he should be penalized for his contributions to the Fairfax police pension plan.

“While employed as a police officer I contributed a significantly higher percentage of my income to a retirement plan than I would have had to Social Security and have earned that benefit as result of my contributions and years of Service,” he wrote in testimony to the U.S. House Ways and Means Committee.

Congress has resisted previous attempts to repeal the provisions, in part because it does not want public sector retirees to collect an unfair “windfall,” but also because of the cost to a Social Security system that faces serious concerns about its future solvency. Repealing the provisions would cost an estimated $183 billion over 10 years, according to the Congressional Research Service.

But opposition to the disputed provisions law has been growing, with 300 members of the U.S. House of Representatives signing onto the legislation this year as co-sponsors. Those co-sponsors include all five of Spanberger’s fellow Democrats in Virginia’s congressional delegation and two Republicans: Rep. Rob Wittman of the 1st District, which covers parts of Hanover, Henrico and Chesterfield, and Rep. Jen Kiggans in the 2nd District, based in Virginia Beach, which represents a larger number of active military, veterans and federal retirees.

“The Social Security Fairness Act will rectify unfair reductions in seniors’ benefits that they have rightfully earned,” said Wittman, who called the legislation “a crucial measure in supporting our seniors who served our communities as first responders, teachers, and public employees.”

“We must ensure that beneficiaries who paid into the Social Security program for decades receive their full benefits,” he said in a statement.

Among the co-sponsors are newly elected House Speaker Mike Johnson, R-La., whose state includes 90,000 people affected by the two provisions, and House Oversight Committee Chairman James Comer, R-Ky., whose panel considers measures affecting federal government employees.

“This is the most progress we’ve made so far,” Spanberger said.

In the Senate, Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., is among 49 co-sponsors of legislation to repeal the two provisions of the law.

Spanberger is retiring from Congress after next year to run for governor in 2025, so she is counting on the House getting it done in 2024. It won’t be easy because of the major political challenges the House faces in the coming new year, with deadlines on Jan. 19 and Feb. 2 to pass appropriations bills to fund the government in the fiscal year that began on Oct. 1. Currently, Congress is operating under the second of two stopgap spending bills it adopted in the fall to avert government shutdowns. 

But Spanberger said repealing the two provisions of the Social Security Act is a priority that she shares with the 55,000 Virginians who say they deserve the benefits they earned.

“It is shocking,” she said. “Folks know what they’re not getting.”

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