Nov 12, 2015

Dozens of MassDOT early retirees haven’t received pensions

REPOSTED FROM THE BOSTON GLOBE - NOVEMBER 11, 2015

By David Scharfenberg - Boston Globe Staff

State officials say dozens of former state transportation workers who retired early as part of a budget-trimming initiative championed by Governor Charlie Baker have not received a single pension check since leaving their jobs in June.

The problem, which is affecting about 45 retirees, has nicked an administration that prides itself on its administrative acumen and riled union officials.

“It’s obscene that you’ve got these people unable to get a check because of the ineptness” of the state’s Department of Transportation, said David J. Holway, president of the National Association of Government Employees, which represents 1,140 workers at the department. “Most public employees live week to week.”

Officials said they are working diligently to fix the problem. “It has the attention of the administration, and we’re working hard to resolve it quickly,” said Tim Buckley, a spokesman for the governor.

Michael Verseckes, a spokesman for the Department of Transportation, added that “this agency owes these retirees our best effort to expedite the resolution to this issue.”
The early retirement incentive program, open to thousands of employees who work under the governor, was a central part of Baker’s effort to balance the state budget after he took office this year.

A total of 2,488 workers took advantage of the pension-sweetening deal, including 412 with the Transportation Department. Their final day of work was June 30.

The State Retirement Board, which works under the aegis of Treasurer Deborah Goldberg, was charged with implementing the program — verifying employees’ payroll information with the agencies that employed them, and then starting to cut checks.

By the end of August, about 500 were receiving their first payments. The bulk of the retirees were squared away a month later. And at the end of October, several hundred more joined their ranks, leaving just the 45 former transportation workers and a handful of others.

The affected retirees include toll collectors, maintenance workers, and engineers, among others. Most of their salaries ranged from about $45,000 to roughly $70,000 when they were working.

It’s not clear how much they are owed in pension payments to date, since their amounts have not yet been properly calculated. But each worker is probably waiting on several thousand dollars.

The holdup: The retirement board has struggled to get the information it needs from the Transportation Department to process the pensions.
The reasons for the delay are not entirely clear. But at least some of the cases, according to the retirement board, have complications — retirees who were overpaid at the end of their working days, for instance, requiring not just reimbursement to the state, but adjustments to retirement benefits.

The retirement board declined to comment on the trouble it has had with the Transportation Department. But Holway, the union official, said, “My understanding is there’s a very high level of frustration at the retirement board at [the Department of Transportation’s] lack of responsiveness.”

The retirement board has a Nov. 21 deadline to get this month’s pension checks in order. Buckley, the governor’s spokesman, said the Transportation Department “hopes” it can get the appropriate information to the retirement board in time. In the meantime, 11 transportation workers have received advances from the retirement board in the last 1½ weeks.

Concern over the botched pension payments has gone to the highest levels of state government. Baker’s office said he discussed the issue with the treasurer in their most recent monthly meeting.

The early retirement program has attracted controversy before. In September, the state’s Office of the Child Advocate released a preliminary report on the struggling Department of Children and Families finding, among other things, that a flood of early retirements exacerbated management problems at the agency. A final report is expected in the coming weeks.

But the program, approved by the Legislature, has received mostly good marks.

“I know they did a great job in processing these checks,” said Frank Valeri, president of the Retired State, County and Municipal Employees Association of Massachusetts, an advocacy group, noting that virtually all of those who signed up for early retirement are already receiving payment. Still, he added, “it’s very difficult for people waiting three or four months.”
 

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