State Auto-IRAs are Building Momentum

About half of the nation’s private-sector employees do not have a retirement savings plan at work, and that hasn’t changed in at least 40 years.

Some states are trying to fix this coverage gap in the absence of substantial progress by the federal government in solving the problem.  And the state reforms are gaining momentum.

Auto-IRA mapIn the past year alone, Maine, Virginia, and Colorado have passed bills requiring private employers without a retirement plan to automatically enroll their workers in IRAs, with workers allowed to opt out. New York City, which is more populous than most states, approved its program in May. And other states are either starting to implement programs or looking at their options.

Auto-IRAs are already up and running in California, Illinois, and Oregon, where a total of nearly 360,000 workers have saved more than $270 million so far. The programs are run by a private sector administrator and investment manager.

These mandatory programs are the only practical way to close the coverage gap, because voluntary retirement saving initiatives have never done the trick. Numerous voluntary plans created by the federal government – such as the Simplified Employee Pension (SEP) – have failed to measurably increase coverage.

Large corporations usually offer a 401(k) plan and match some of their workers’ savings. But millions of restaurants, shops, and other small businesses either can’t afford to set up their own 401(k)s or don’t see it as a priority. Without additional saving, half of U.S. workers are at risk of a drop in their standard of living when they retire.

State auto-IRA programs eliminate the administrative burden and expense to employers of a private plan and provide an easy way for workers to save. The money is taken out of their paychecks before they can spend it and is deposited in an account that grows over time. The state programs also permit workers  to withdraw their contributions without a tax penalty for emergencies, like a medical problem or broken-down car, if they need the money they’ve saved. …Learn More

Think of Saver’s Tax Credit as Free Money

Life’s unpleasant surprises – a new set of tires or a big vet bill – can get in the way of saving money for retirement. This is especially true for low-income workers.

But if they are able to save a little here and there, the federal government provides a very big assist through its Saver’s Credit. Unfortunately, low-income workers are also the least likely to be aware the tax credit exists.

Savers credit tableHere’s how the Saver’s Credit works. The IRS returns half of the amount saved over the year – up to certain limits – by a head of household earning less than $29,626 or a couple earning less than $39,501.

So, the head of household with earnings under the income limit who saves $2,000 in a tax-exempt retirement plan like an IRA or an employer 401(k) would get back the IRS’ maximum credit of $1,000. And the couple that saves $4,000 would get back the $2,000 maximum.

Piggy bankGranted, these are very large sums for low-income workers. But if they can manage to save a little bit every week, the Saver’s Credit is effectively free money from the federal government.

Smaller tax credits are available to people with slightly higher incomes. Individuals and couples do not qualify if they earn more than $49,500 and $66,000, respectively.

Unfortunately, only about a third of households earning under $50,000 are aware of the credit, according to a Transamerica Institute survey.

Now that you know, start saving. You’ll get a big chunk of it back. …Learn More

Hard for People on SSDI to Resume Work

Man sanding woodThe federal government runs numerous small-scale experiments across the country to explore ways to help people on Social Security disability ease back into work to reduce the benefits being paid.

In a recent webinar, researchers discussed the extreme challenges of designing programs that are effective, given the inherent disadvantages – from the disabling condition itself and discrimination to having less education – that people with disabilities face in the job market.

After close examination of several programs, the researchers found that the primary goals of most demonstration programs are very difficult to achieve: reducing disability benefits or increasing the earnings of people on disability who have sporadic or part-time work. But they also suggested that the programs would be deemed more successful if policymakers would broaden the goals to include the improved well-being of people with disabilities.

To increase their employment, Kilolo Kijakazi, deputy commissioner of retirement and disability policy at the U.S. Social Security Administration, said it’s critical to first address inequities in the job market.

Research shows that many people on disability express an interest in working but face multiple barriers. Employers aren’t always willing to make the workplace accommodations needed to hire them. People on disability also tend to be older than most workers and may face age discrimination. Others have been discouraged by past work experiences, and finding transportation to and from a job is often a challenge.

Although a minority of all Americans with disabilities are working, the 2020 unemployment rate among people with a disability who are either working or looking for a job was 12.6 percent. However, unemployment among Black Americans with disabilities was 16.3 percent. The rates were also very high for Asian-Americans and Latinos with disabilities –  15.7% and 16.8 percent, respectively.

“We need to develop policies and programs that address these inequities,” Kijakazi said.

Robert Moffitt at Johns Hopkins University analyzed several back-to-work programs, including the use of counselors and financial incentives. He found that the programs are extremely difficult to implement well and that participation is fairly low.

Although they do help some individuals, he concluded, “Most of the efforts to increase employment, earnings and labor force engagement of [disability] beneficiaries have been disappointing.” …Learn More

Helping hands

An Appreciation of Professional Caregivers

My 85-year-old mother had been up a few times during a night in early June and still wasn’t feeling well in the morning. I called her doctor, who sent a prescription to her pharmacy, and went about my day’s work. But when I checked in that afternoon, mom was in a full-blown medical crisis that she and her 92-year-old male companion did not think was bad enough to tell me about.

I asked her companion to call the EMTs, who immediately dispatched mom to an emergency room a few miles from her Orlando retirement community. These events marked the start of my maiden voyage as my mother’s caregiver from 1,300 miles away in Boston. It was a high-stress affair that challenged all my organizational skills and stamina – an experience I am, no doubt, destined to repeat.

I’ve heard about the stresses of caring for an elderly parent but had only a vague sense of what that would be like. Nearly a week was consumed with keeping tabs on mom’s medical care at the hospital and what she needed, tracking down busy nurses and doctors – in a pandemic! – for updates on her condition (pneumonia) and treatment. Finally, upon mom’s hospital release on a Sunday, I wanted to make sure nothing else would go wrong at home.

The clouds started to lift when I hired three professional caregivers – Rachel, Nadine, and Rosa – to keep an eye on my mother for the first 24 hours at home. I developed a great appreciation for their kindness and efficiency and the unique talents each one brought to the job.

The hiring process wasn’t seamless, however, due to the COVID. My mother and her partner are fully vaccinated. But Florida has a much lower vaccination rate – 62 percent of adults have at least one dose, compared with 81 percent in Massachusetts – and I quickly learned that 35-year-old Rachel, the first caregiver assigned to mom, was among the unvaccinated.

I was about to cancel the contract with the company employing the caregivers when they offered to give Rachel a rapid COVID test. That worked for me. Having made my intentions crystal clear, the company texted me Nadine’s and Rosa’s vaccine cards for the later shifts. …Learn More

Students graduating during the pandemic

Women Faster to Accept Jobs. Pay Suffers

Women attend college at higher rates than men. Women’s labor force participation was also fairly steady prior to COVID, while men’s declined, and women continue to move into fields traditionally held by men.

Despite all this progress, women still earn much less than men.

Discrimination partly explains the pay gap, as does motherhood, which can interrupt the smooth progression in women’s careers at a critical time. But another explanation doesn’t get as much attention: women earn less because they’re not as confident as men about how much they can get and are more afraid of taking some risks in negotiations with employers.

In the 2018 and 2019 graduating classes at Boston University’s Questrom School of Business, women started their job searches earlier and accepted employers’ offers more quickly, according to a new analysis of student surveys before graduation and after they’d landed a job.

Men, on the other hand, do take risks, extending the negotiation with employers to see how much they can secure or even rejecting a job in hopes that a better one comes along.

Prior to graduating, nearly two-thirds of the women in BU’s business school had accepted a job during their junior or senior years but only about half of the men had, the researchers found.

The male students also enter their pay negotiations with higher expectations of what they want to earn. Their optimism, verging on overconfidence, serves them well. Male graduates from the BU business school earned about $6,700 more, on average, than their female classmates.

Men’s natural advantages in two psychological attributes – optimism and a willingness to take risks – “play a non-trivial role in generating early career earnings gaps among the highly skilled,” the study concluded. …Learn More

Silhouette of a detective with glasses

$4 Billion in Pension Payments Returned

It’s the employer’s responsibility to find former employees and keep them apprised of any retirement benefits they left behind.

But that hasn’t always worked out. Some employers don’t have former workers’ current contact information, and others don’t bother to track them down. Worst-case scenarios are often fallout from a merger: the company being acquired has kept shoddy pension plan records and the acquirer doesn’t update them.  Some companies have even deleted a participant’s name from the records.

Tyler Compton, an attorney with the Pension Action Center, which connects workers with lost pensions and 401(k) savings plans, said people frequently contact a former employer because they think they might have a plan. But if the worker is told he’s not in the records, he might drop the matter, she said.

The U.S. Department of Labor decided several years ago that employers’ efforts weren’t good enough. The department’s Employee Benefits Security Administration (EBSA) began investigating the problem and pushing companies to improve their methods for finding workers who had quit or been laid off but were owed pension benefits or had savings sitting in an old 401(k).

EBSA has gotten results. Since 2017, more than $4 billion in past due defined benefit pension payments have been returned to millions of plan participants.

By making clear what is expected of employers, regulators “put a lot of pressure, in a good sense, on plan administrators to really up their games,” Jeffrey Holdvogt, a legal partner with McDermott Will & Emery, said in a recent webinar hosted by the Pension Action Center at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. …Learn More

No-Benefit Jobs Better than Retiring Early

Woman in taxiMany workers in their 60s lose some of their stamina. Either their bodies start showing signs of wear, or they don’t tolerate on-the-job stress like they used to.

People who find themselves in this situation but can’t afford to retire will appreciate the findings in a recent study: older workers who transition to a new job – and perhaps a less demanding one – have greatly improved their retirement finances, even if the new job lacks health and retirement benefits.

The starting point for the analysis was to identify 61- and 62-year-olds employed in career jobs and follow the changes in their retirement finances over time, as they break into three groups. Some retired, some remained in longstanding jobs with benefits, and some found no-benefit jobs, whether with an employer or as an independent contractor.

Matt Rutledge and Gal Wettstein at the Center for Retirement Research compared each group’s retirement prospects in their early 60s with where they ended up years later, after the majority of them had retired. The focus was on the people who, at 62, were falling short of what they would need to retire comfortably.

The financial assessments were based on so-called replacement rates – estimated retirement income as a percentage of employment earnings. The average target required for financial security in old age is about 75 percent of past earnings, though the precise number depends on how much the individual earned.

The researchers estimated replacement rates for the 62-year-olds who fell short of the targets and estimated the rates again when they were 67 or 68. Retirement security improved over time for the under-prepared people who continued to work – in contrast to an erosion in security for the people who, despite falling short, had retired at 62 and locked in a small Social Security check.

The most interesting finding concerned the older workers who had extended their employment by switching to no-benefit jobs. Their retirement income in their late 60s replaced 68 percent of their past earnings, on average – still less than what they need but up dramatically from 52 percent if they had retired early. …Learn More