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Retirement change would ease public employee staffing crisis

Rolling back a Scott Walker-era rule change to the Wisconsin Retirement System (WRS) will bring relief to local government employers while saving local taxpayers money.

Public employers in Wisconsin are facing a staffing crisis.

In many ways this is the same crisis that has been hitting private sector employers for more than a year as demographics and job growth collide. Wisconsin’s workforce is getting older as the median age continues to climb, especially in rural areas. What this means is fewer young people in comparison to older workers and retirees.

Private sector employers have had to increase wages, adjust work schedules and improve benefits offerings in an attempt to attract new hires. In the process, they have, by necessity, passed those additional expenses onto consumers.

There is little wiggle room for wages and benefit increase in county, school district and municipal annual budgets. With statutory restrictions on levy increases preventing additional costs from being passed onto the taxpayers, this situation is unlikely to change.

Rolling back former governor Scott Walker’s regulations against “double dipping” would be a game changer for public employers allowing governments to keep payrolls in check and save money for taxpayers.

Municipal, county, school district and state employees pay into the WRS and upon formal retirement begin receiving a pension based on the amount they made and the length of time they paid into the system.

If the retiree goes to work for a private company they collect their pension in addition to their wages. However, if they go to work for any public employer who participates in WRS, their pension is put on hold until after they re-retire.

Prior to the rule change, public sector employees could retire and then come back later in another position and receive both their wages and pension. This was an important incentive to keeping talented employees in positions where they could do the most good. At the same time, the governments’ budgets benefited because they didn’t have to pay into the retirement system for that employee.

Retirees have a wealth of work and life experience which makes them valuable employees. A veteran teacher with decades of experience should be allowed to come back to the classroom. Likewise a county or municipal employee should be able to transition to fill other positions without being penalized for doing so. Wisconsin taxpayers cannot afford to squander valuable personnel resources at a time when positions are going unfilled.

The WRS rule change dates from an effort to control bloated government and free up spaces for younger workers in a time of higher unemployment. With unemployment rates at historic low levels, those conditions simply do not exist now. Wisconsin needs to change with the times and give public sector employers the tools to be competitive in the employment marketplace.