MOULTRIE -- Educators are retiring in droves, and many of them reaching age 62 find themselves at a loss, literally.
Teachers worried about retirement in these lean times are meeting in Valdosta Thursday evening to discuss changing provisions in the Social Security Act that sever them from money that was duly taken from their or their spouses' paychecks.
The National Education Association and the Georgia Association of Educators are sending experts in the issue to spread the word about pending legislation that may put money back into many teachers' nest eggs.
The NEA and GAE seek to change two amendments to the Social Security Act made in 1977 and 1983. They were designed to save money during a time of major budget deficits but have since backfired on many federal civil servants, including teachers, police officers, firefighters, postal workers and military servicemen.
States got a one-shot chance to opt out of paying Social Security in the early 1980s. Some, like Georgia, went with a local option plan. Some school districts chose to continue paying Social Security, while others, including systems in Colquitt County, Thomasville, Lowndes County, Valdosta and Cook County, opted out.
For teachers in those systems which have opted out, any Social Security paid from any private sector income will be dramatically slashed, even survivor benefits.
NEA and GAE officials say the government pension offset and the windfall elimination provision in the Social Security Act must go.
The government pension offset reduces an individual's Social Security survivor benefits (available to a person whose deceased spouse had earned Social Security benefits) by an amount equal to two-thirds of his public pension, according to NEA officials. However, if a widowed educator worked in the private sector or if she didn't work at all, she would have been entitled to all survivor benefits.
C.A. Gray Middle School counselor Gail Holland's husband, a retired educator, gets $139 as opposed to the $469 per month he would have gotten before the amendments were passed.
"He put the money in. He paid the money in. Who are they to decide you don't get it because you're a teacher and you've got the teacher retirement system? Isn't that his choice to make -- what to do with his money?" Holland posed.
Holland is staring down the same double barrels.
"I'm not even going to qualify for survivor's benefits because I don't have my 40 (social security) quarters in," she said, frustrated. "It's messed up a lot of people. It needs to be fixed. Most people don't find out about this until they retire, and then they find out, 'Oh, my gosh!"
With the windfall elimination provision, a retired teacher who worked for a school system that opted out of paying Social Security forfeits a considerable chunk of any benefits she earned if she worked in the private sector weekends, summers or from jobs prior to becoming a teacher, said Sue Chase, organizational specialist for NEA.
As more people become aware of these little-known provisions, the revelation may put a chokehold on a profession already staggering from blows dealt by federal and state-level pressures. The amendments particularly affect mid-career professionals choosing a second life as a teacher after private sector careers.
"With the teacher shortage already, it's going to discourage people from coming into a system like this once they figure out that's how Georgia does this," NEA lobbyist Shilpa Reddy affirmed.
The issue becomes even more problematic if a teacher moves from a state whose teachers pay Social Security to a state that doesn't or to a school system that opted out in a state that has provided a local option. That teacher's Social Security benefits would be cut dramatically, thus discouraging professionals from moving into school systems stuck with the opt-out.
In fact, many teachers transfer out of systems, like Colquitt County Schools, that don't collect Social Security to those that do just to get enough time in to get all their benefits when they rea
ch 62, NEA officials said, or they find a job in the private sector.
"It was not the individual's choice, unfortunately, but the local entity for which they work," Chase said.
GAE Governmental Relations Director Bob Cribbs said the crux of educators' concerns is that school systems are saving the 6.5 percent employer contribution rate in Social Security. Some school systems, such as Murray County, have invested that contribution in investment plans for their employees, Cribbs said, but those agreements were nonbinding, and many teachers got the short end of the deal. Colquitt County did not invest the employer contribution rate, local educators said.
Chase said Georgia's weakness lies in its local option. Because of that, there has never been a statewide push to strengthen teacher pensions.
The bills supported by the NEA, H.R. 2638 and S. 1523, will restore affected civil servants' benefits as of the date of passage, Chase said. Those versions have bipartisan support from 15 senators and 175 House members, including Rep. Sanford Bishop, Sen. Zell Miller and possibly Sen. Max Cleland, said Burt Wagnon, GAE representative.
The meeting will be held at the Lowndes County High School at 6 p.m.