Punished for paying it forward — that’s not right

November 26, 2018

On Monday, Nov. 26, the Public Employee Retirement Association will present testimony to the Investments and Pensions Oversight Committee of the New Mexico Legislature regarding the pension plan’s solvency. PERA’s actuarial data presented in recent public meetings held throughout the state make reasons for concern obvious. But whatever plans PERA might propose to improve the situation should not place PERA retirees in the double-bind of reducing their benefits while limiting their options for returning to limited work with PERA or Educational Retirement Board-affiliated employers.

I am a retired public health physician, paramedic and rescue chief of my local volunteer fire department in Dixon. I turned 65 this year and was denied a PERA cost-of-living adjustment to my pension benefit because I have chosen to teach part-time at the University of New Mexico-Taos.

On the urging of emergency medical services colleagues, I agreed to teach because I believe that the need for EMS and nursing professionals in rural areas is critical, and because I love to teach and I have the time in retirement to commit to it. I feel strongly that educational opportunities in health professions improve employment opportunities for young people in this part of the state.

I had hoped to be able to continue to teach at UNM Taos for the next five to 10 years. But I had not anticipated that the statute that governs PERA would cause them to deny the COLA, and that the hit that I would experience to my pension benefits over the long run would exceed the pay that I could earn from teaching.

The pay for temporary part-time faculty within the UNM system is substandard by almost any measure, but not different from the sad state of affairs in community colleges nationwide. Most people serve as temporary part-time teaching faculty not for the pay but because they enjoy teaching and believe that it contributes to the strength of their communities.

There are cogent arguments that support PERA’s position that retirees on pensions should not return to full-time work with either PERA or ERB employers. However, in comparison to PERA, the Educational Retirement Board has provisions that allow retirees to return to work with ERB-affiliated employers as long as the work hours and pay are limited. This policy allows retirees an opportunity to apply that experience to the benefit of educational institutions and students in New Mexico.

The current policy of PERA that inhibits its retirees from teaching part-time in areas of their expertise and passion does not significantly impact PERA’s actuarial situation. It accomplishes only one thing — it keeps its retirees from contributing to educational efforts in the state.

PERA and the New Mexico Legislature should work together with retirees who are impacted by this unfortunate provision of PERA’s governing statute to make it more responsive to the needs of education. PERA and the Legislature should amend the statute to allow PERA retirees to teach within ERB-affiliated institutions on a limited basis without compromising their pensions. A discussion of this issue at Monday’s hearing of the Investments and Pensions Oversight Committee would be a good place to start.

Dr. Steven Jenison is a retired public health physician and paramedic. He served for 15 years as a medical director with the New Mexico Department of Health and four years as a faculty member in the Department of Medicine at the University of New Mexico Health Sciences Center.

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