Salisbury firefighters wrestle with Social Safety advantages due to decades-old resolution – Salisbury Submit

By Natalie Anderson
natalie.anderson@salisburypost.com

SALISBURY – After a 27-year career with the Salisbury Fire Department, former captain Paul Rendleman was expecting $ 1,300 a month in survivor benefits following the death of his wife Jeanette in 2019.

Although he was contributing to Social Security from other jobs, those survivor benefits were reduced to $ 81 per month because he was a retired firefighter. Then in May he had to repay everything.

Like many retirees, if one of them died, Rendleman and his wife planned to provide the other with financial support. But he now wonders whether he would have embarked on a career as a firefighter if he had known the consequences of a decision decades before his term in office. He now wants younger firefighters who may not understand Social Security to know firsthand what he’s been through.

“I don’t know if I would have ever worked for the Salisbury Fire Department if I had known the effects of retirement after losing my wife,” said Rendleman. “I’m lucky I had another business where I had some money, but a lot of these people don’t have anything else.”

Some changes to the social security program that were passed in the 1950s allowed states to offer social security protection to public employees. The fire brigades had the option of deregistering if they had a different retirement plan.

Salisbury was among those who checked out. As a result, Salisbury firefighters are the only city government employees not covered by Social Security, despite being covered by the local government employee pension scheme through the retirement plan.

“We’re paying the price for what these guys did back then,” said Rendleman. “And we’re stuck in a barrel with it.”

The The Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1990 extended social security coverage to state or local government employees who were not covered by a pension system. The National Association of State Retirement Administrators estimates that about a quarter of state and local government employees across the country enroll in a public retirement system in place of social security that includes more than two-thirds of firefighters and other first responders.

But even though Rendleman pays more than the full 40 quarters or 10 years required in the social security program from other jobs, he said he is now getting only $ 135 from social security. He blames two federal provisions that were passed in 1983.

Both the state pension equalization and the Windfall Elimination Commission can penalize those who receive or are expected to receive social security benefits. Almost a third of educators and a fifth of civil servants are affected, according to ssfairness.org, a website dedicated to the repeal. The WEP is a penalty imposed on the social security benefit if that person begins to receive a pension from a public institution after not paying social security taxes while in employment. The GPO can punish those who claim spouse or survivor social security benefits.

Rendleman says the regulations punish those who had two jobs, which is common with firefighters. While one job gave them social security benefits, the other did not have to pay taxes on the program.

“I don’t think it’s right that I don’t get my social security back,” said Rendleman. “At no point did anyone tell us that we would not be able to get the full spouse’s allowance. They call it ‘double-dipping’, but I call it ‘double-paid’. “

Darrel Nichols is another retired Salisbury firefighter facing a similar challenge. Nichols worked for the Salisbury Fire Department from 1990 to 2014 before a spinal cord tumor made him unemployed. Like Rendleman, Nichols had another job where he paid for social security. Today he is not entitled to any social security disability benefits beyond the 2.5 year disability provided by the city.

“I want (firefighters) to know that they are missing out on an advantage that the vast majority of others who work are getting,” said Nichols. “You are only a phone call away from being unable to work.”

City Manager Lane Bailey said an estimated 25% of North Carolina government units are in “similar boats,” including the city of Charlotte. As in Salisbury, Charlotte firefighters do not pay Social Security wage tax, which is 6.2% excluding Medicare. Instead, the city is a plan sponsor and responsible for funding the Charlotte Firefighters’ retirement system.

Rick Fesperman, a retired assistant chief who began his 30-year tenure with Salisbury Fire in 1974, said firefighters were used to working 24 hours on and 24 hours off at the time. However, given the low salary compared to many other jobs in the private sector, many firefighters were not interested in having an extra chunk taken off their paycheck.

“The financial benefit is greater than what you would have to pay each month,” said Nichols.

Fortunately, Fesperman said, he had other jobs before joining the department and after retiring almost 16 years ago. But the nearly $ 200 Social Security gets from these other jobs will be reduced to $ 66 once the Medicare expense is deducted.

The repeal of the GPO and WEP, Fesperman added, would allow firefighters who had other jobs to get more of their legitimate benefits.

All three told the Post they had sent letters to local, state, and state leaders detailing these challenges. Ultimately, “it falls on deaf ears,” said Fesperman.

There have been several attempts to overturn the GPO and WEP at the federal level, most recently bipartisan House Resolution 82 or the Social Security Fairness Act of 2021, led by Rep. Rodney Davis, a Republican from Illinois. To date, more than 180 congressmen have signed the bill, including four North Carolina Democrats. However, the bill did not come out of the House of Representatives Committee on Ways and Means after the referral in January.

Bailey said the city of Salisbury and fire chief Bob Parnell were investigating ways to keep the services of the Salisbury fire department competitive. These options include setting up a fund that Salisbury firefighters could choose to deposit into and receive a match of the same amount from the city. Bailey said an option like this would allow firefighters to choose whether or not to add to the fund.

The 2021-22 budget, which began July 1, includes an increase in the 401,000 game of all city employees out of the city, increasing the quota from 3% to 4%. Bailey said an additional and separate increase for firefighters was also being discussed as another option for more compensation. Police officers are currently receiving a 5% 401K match.

The challenge, Bailey said, is to get a super majority among firefighters who want to opt for the city’s social security program again, especially among younger firefighters who may or may not count on social security viability in decades’ time 6 , 2% tax on salary required.

In addition, at least 40 quarters must be paid in, with each quarter corresponding to three months. That length of time means it would be at least 10 years before a firefighter could benefit from the option, Bailey said. So reintegration would not benefit those who are about to retire or who are already retired.

Since the city also provides compensation when employees pay social security taxes, the reintegration also affects the city budget. Based on the salaries of 88 Salisbury firefighters, including the boss, that comes to around $ 260,000, Bailey said.

Contact reporter Natalie Anderson at 704-797-4246.

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