Al Nelson proudly served the United States as a soldier for 20 years. Then, for 25 years after that, he delivered mail to neighborhoods...

Share story

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Al Nelson proudly served the United States as a soldier for 20 years.

Then, for 25 years after that, he delivered mail to neighborhoods he still describes with affection.

In January, Nelson, 65, of Olathe, Kan., discovered that because of a quirk in the nation’s pension laws, his career change is costing him about 40 percent of the Social Security benefits he’s earned in his lifetime.

“Fair? I don’t think so,” said Nelson, who is urging President Bush, Congress and anyone else involved in shaping public policy to correct what many people say is a fundamental inequity in the nation’s pension system.

Most Read Stories

Unlimited Digital Access. $1 for 4 weeks.

Nelson is one of perhaps 700,000 people whose retirement incomes are tangled in red tape that was intended in the 1980s to align public-service pensions more closely with Social Security.

The Social Security Administration estimates that about 159 million of the nation’s jobs, or 96 percent of the total, are covered by Social Security. The remaining jobs are predominantly teachers, firefighters, police officers and other government workers whose employers opted out of Social Security coverage.

Many workers have divided significant parts of their working lives between the two systems. Some exempted workers moonlight on jobs that are covered. Others, like Nelson, move from one system to the other when they change careers. These are the workers most likely to face cuts in the benefits they earn.

Who’s at risk?

Any public employee in a job not covered by Social Security.

Employees or retirees in the Civil Service Retirement System instead of the newer Federal Employees Retirement System.

Public employees who move from a position covered by Social Security to one that is not covered.

Career changers who move from a Social Security-covered job to a public-service job that is not covered.

Anyone who is married to someone at risk.

What can you do?

Correcting the problem requires changing Social Security law. Contact your U.S. senator or House member to make your views known. You can also contact the Senate Finance Committee at 202-224-4515 or www.finance.senate.gov, or the U.S. House Ways and Means Committee at 202-225-3625 or http://waysandmeans.house.gov/ to urge action on current proposals to repeal the offsets and provisions.

Start saving as much money as possible in independent plans such as the federal Thrift Savings Plan, your employer’s 401(k) or IRAs for additional independent income when you retire.

For more information

Contact Social Security through its Web site at www.ssa.gov or by telephone at 800-772-1213 for specific help or information about the current rules.

Web sites hosted by interested parties such as teachers groups at www.nea.org, public-employees groups such as the National Active and Retired Federal Employees Association at www.narfe.org, or the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees at www.afscme.org and related state and local groups also have information about efforts to change the rules.

Knight Ridder Newspapers

And their number could grow dramatically depending on how efforts to change Social Security unfold in Washington.

One idea is bringing more contributions into the system by expanding coverage to about 4 million workers at state and local government agencies that don’t participate in Social Security. That could expose 4 million people to the federally mandated benefit reductions that reduced Nelson’s retirement income.

Many government jobs outside the Social Security system have had comparatively generous pension benefits, usually because the governments wanted to give workers better deals than Social Security plans offered.

And many state and local governments hopped in and out of Social Security plans until the federal government ordered the practice stopped a few years ago.

By 1982, federal lawmakers were working to narrow the differences and to relieve budget pressures on the retirement system by switching more government workers into Social Security-covered plans. They created two tools that were intended to keep retirees covered by both plans from profiting unfairly.

The first tool was the government-pension offset, or GPO, which reduces a widowed spouse’s potential Social Security benefits by two-thirds if the partner received pension payments from a non-Social Security plan.

The second was the windfall-elimination provision, or WEP, which uses a formula to cut Social Security pension benefits by about 40 percent for retirees who also get pension checks from a non-Social Security plan.

To retirees such as Nelson, the GPO and WEP seem more like meat axes than tools, however.

“We’re being robbed of benefits we earned,” Nelson said.

In 1958, the then-18-year-old Nelson joined the Army, barely a year after Congress voted the nation’s soldiers, sailors, Air Force and Marines into the Social Security system.

Nelson and his family lived and worked many places in the United States and overseas in the following 20 years.

More to the point for Social Security calculations, he was also building a history of contributions into the system that was twice as long as the minimum 40 calendar quarters needed to qualify for early-retirement benefits at age 62 or full benefits at 65.

“During my last year of military service in 1978, I had to make a decision,” Nelson said.

Theoretically, at least, he could leave the military, start collecting a full Army pension and coast for 25 years until his full Social Security benefits kicked in, too.

“However, with a wife and three children, that wasn’t going to happen,” he said.

“But my uncle was working for the U.S. Postal Service at the time and making pretty good money, so I decided to take the test and try to carry mail for a living,” he said. “Civil-service retirement looked good.”

Postal workers and many other government workers weren’t covered by Social Security when Nelson stepped out on his first mail route. They were covered by the old Civil Service Retirement System, known as CSRS in government shorthand.

When the Postal Service began switching to the Social Security-covered Federal Employees Retirement System, or FERS, in the early 1980s, civil-service workers were allowed to choose whether to stay with the old system or switch to the new one.

“I stayed. I did the numbers, and there didn’t seem to be much advantage to switching,” Nelson said. “My intention was to work the rest of my years in the Postal Service, file for my earned benefits with Social Security and have a semicomfortable retirement,” he said.

On Jan. 5, Nelson applied for what he thought was going to be a $1,100-a-month Social Security benefit, based on the money Uncle Sam collected from 20 years of his Army pay.

“The windfall-elimination provision was a major factor and skimmed approximately $300 right off the top of my benefits,” Nelson said. “And if I predecease my wife, she probably will be caught by the government-pension offset.”

Medicare Part B insurance premiums are going to take an additional $78.20 a month from Nelson’s Social Security benefits, leaving barely more than $600 of the $1,100 he first expected, plus a combined $2,380 a month in military and Postal Service retirement benefits.

There is a solution to the problem, some experts say.

Retirees such as Nelson, and groups such as the National Education Association, the National Active and Retired Federal Employees Association, and the AFL-CIO’s American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees want the WEP and GPO repealed.

Federal officials, including Social Security Commissioner Jo Anne Barnhart, are cool to that idea. Eliminating WEP and GPO would treat government workers more favorably than others doing comparable work, Barnhart has told congressional panels looking into the issue from time to time.

Plus, repealing the provisions would be a major change that would be more appropriate to consider along with other changes under discussion for strengthening and protecting the system, Barnhart said.

Legislation known as the Social Security Fairness Act of 2005, to repeal the provisions, has been introduced both in the House, with 245 co-sponsors, and the Senate, with 15 co-sponsors.