Paula Cooper worked as a chemist in the oil industry before she became a teacher at 34. She had worked in the Houston public schools as a science teacher for nearly eight years when she learned that the Social Security benefits she earned as a chemist might be reduced because she would also receive a public pension someday from the Teacher Retirement System of Texas.
Texas is one of more than a dozen states affected by the Windfall Elimination Provision and the Government Pension Offset, which reduce the Social Security benefits of public employees. WEP, enacted in 1983, reduces the earned Social Security benefits of individuals who also receive a public pension from a job not covered by Social Security. GPO, enacted in 1977, reduces public employees' Social Security spousal or survivor benefits by two-thirds of their public pension, even though a spouse or family member may have paid Social Security taxes for many years.
Once Cooper learned about WEP, it was too late for her make another career change. 'I was knee-deep into teaching, and I loved it because I was making a difference, so I chose to stick with it,' she says.
But by 2011, Cooper was physically unable to work; back and knee problems forced her to retire with 23 years of service. Cooper, who is a member of the Houston Federation of Teachers retiree committee, planned to wait to draw her Social Security, hoping that the law would be repealed by federal legislation. But she can't wait any longer. Next year, she will collect a little more than $500 a month after the reduction and her Medicare premium, which is nowhere near the $1,100 she was expecting to get in retirement. 'I wanted to hold off until I'm 70, but I can't, so I'm going to take my money and raise hell about this. It makes a big difference in my life, and it's not fair.'
The fight to roll back WEP and GPO has been waged for more than 20 years, but proposals to repeal these provisions have been repeatedly introduced in Congress without success.
'Rolling back this law is the priority for retirees, but it needs to be on the radar of active teachers as well,' says Cheryl Anderson, the chair of the Texas AFT retiree committee.
'We are working hard to organize retirees to get the word out statewide, but this is really an active-member issue,' says Anderson. 'Younger teachers need to be in the trenches with us.' She believes the future of teaching in her state is in jeopardy because of WEP and GPO.
Members of the Texas AFT retiree committee, including Cooper, are fighting for a better life and a better future for active members by lobbying their state and federal legislative representatives for a remedy. They are also raising public awareness and educating teachers about how they could be impacted by WEP and GPO when they retire.
'It may not matter to you today, but it will when you get ready to retire. The pension offset is a factor in the decision to become a teacher, and even more so if you came to teaching as a second career,' says Anderson.
This fall, the AFT announced its support for the Public Servants Protection and Fairness Act, federal legislation to address the offset of Social Security benefits for public employees receiving pensions, like the retired teachers in Texas. The bill, H.R. 4540, sponsored by Rep. Richard Neal (D-Mass.), would modify the current WEP with a new formula for Social Security benefits and provide a 'rebate' of $150 per month to current Social Security beneficiaries impacted by WEP and those turning 62 before 2022. Public employees who retire in 2022 or later would see an average benefit of $75 per month. The bill also maintains the current exemptions from WEP for individuals not receiving a pension and for those with 30 years or more of coverage under Social Security.
The AFT acknowledges that H.R. 4540 isn't a perfect repeal of WEP and does not address GPO. However, the bill is structured so that most retirees will see a gain in benefits and so that no retirees-either current or future-will be worse off. The bill is an important first step. The AFT will also continue to call for full repeal of WEP and GPO. The union supports the Social Security Fairness Act of 2019, which would fully repeal both, but it faces an uphill battle in Congress.
Cooper is supportive of H.R. 4540 but says she will continue to fight for her full pension. 'What gets me is that lawmakers say we are double dipping, but that's not true. I spent years working for my benefits. The government is stabbing me in the back. There's nothing my representatives can say to make what they are doing OK, because I don't understand it. They can't explain to me the unfairness of it all.'