AUGUSTA — Organizations representing teachers, school administrators and state employees warned against preventing retirees from collecting both a pension and a paycheck at a time when many schools are struggling to fill specialized jobs.

Democratic and Republican members of a legislative committee also appeared skeptical of the financial need for additional restrictions on so-called “double dipping” by public sector employees.

“I actually think the best argument you make is not a financial one but one where you are trying to bring in new blood and encourage new people to apply. … But I guess I don’t follow the logic you are presenting on the financial sense,” said Rep. Tom Winsor, R-Norway, a conservative member of the Legislature’s Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee.

The issue of “double dipping” – when school or state employees retire with a pension but then go back to work in the public sector – has been an emotional one for years. The debate has been most heated in education circles, where some superintendents and principals have collected six-figure salaries on top of their pension benefits.

In 2014, nearly 2,400 public employees drew both a salary and a pension, with the average pension $28,832, according to data provided by the Maine Public Employees Retirement System.

The Legislature changed the law in 2011 to specify that public sector retirees could only receive 75 percent of the prior salary after returning and work no longer than five years. Additionally, employees must wait at least 30 days before returning to work after retirement.

But Rep. Heidi Sampson, R-Alfred, has introduced legislation that would effectively force retired state employees or teachers to suspend their pension payments if they opt to return to working for the state or in public schools.

“When someone is drawing from the retirement system while at the same time still working, they are no longer contributing to the system,” Sampson said. “This, in fact, will have a negative impact on those state employees who have not retired and it exacerbates the unfunded liability. Additionally, this practice denies individuals a better-paying position who would otherwise be contributing to the retirement system.”

But bill opponents said the Maine pension system’s unfunded liability is steadily decreasing. They also said Sampson’s bill, L.D. 1509, would hurt state retirees who need to supplement their pension income while hampering the ability of schools and state agencies to fill niche positions.

Richard Durost, executive director of the Maine Principals’ Association, said that contrary to suggestions often heard in the “double dipping” debate, schools are not choosing retirees over younger applicants. Instead, schools often turn to retirees because of a lack of qualified applicants, particularly in such specialized subjects as physics, chemistry or calculus or for top administrative posts, Durost said.

And the issue is not restricted to rural Maine, Durost said. A school district not far from Augusta is “scrambling for candidates” to fill three principal openings next year.

“We have some very difficult positions to fill out there,” Durost said. “And if the local decision is the retiree is the best possible teacher to put in front of those kids in the classroom, or the retiree is the best possible person to put in the leadership of the school in that district, we should give them that option.”

Eileen King, deputy executive director of the Maine School Management Association, said there are currently seven interim superintendents working in districts looking for a permanent replacement with another half-dozen openings expected by the end of the school year.

According to the Maine Education Association, nearly 40 percent of Maine teachers are age 55 or older, creating a situation of “a mass exodus from the profession in the next five to seven years.” Additionally, John Kosinski with the MEA – the state’s teachers union and advocacy organization – said retired teachers can only come back to work if the local school board and superintendent decide they deserve the job and, even then, are brought back as probationary teachers who can be let go “without cause.”

“The bill discriminates only against Maine teachers,” Kosinski said. “There is nothing stopping someone from Massachusetts from retiring, moving to Maine, re-entering the workforce and re-entering teaching with no penalty.”

But L.D. 1509 has the support of the administration of Gov. Paul LePage, who has previously lashed out at so-called double-dippers.

Ian Swanberg, director of governmental and legislative affairs at the Department of Administrative and Financial Services, said the current system does not encourage schools or state agencies to play for the future by cultivating younger employees.

“Watching a manager retire in August and then return to their previous job in September is certain to demoralize the workers who are looking for upward mobility in their careers,” Swanberg said. “This is likely to exacerbate the recruitment and retention issues the state and school departments already face.”

Several Democratic lawmakers and at least three Republicans on the 13-member Appropriations Committee questioned Swanberg and other witnesses about whether the current system really places a strain on the pension system, however. Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta, said he has not heard many complaints from state employees frustrated that they could not advance because a retiree was rehired.

The committee had not yet announced a date for the work session on the bill.

filed under:

Augusta and Waterville news

Get news and events from your towns in your inbox every Friday.


  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.