World and Nation

N.Y. workers rushed to sign up for pensions before cuts

ALBANY, N.Y. — Thousands of public employees across New York state scrambled to sign up for pensions over the last several weeks, seeking to lock in generous retirement benefits before cuts approved by the state Legislature took effect Sunday.

At the New York City Employees’ Retirement System, for example, more than 12,000 workers applied last week to enroll in the pension system — more than 40 times the typical weekly number of applicants. And the New York City Board of Education Retirement System received nearly 9,000 applications over the past two weeks, after enrolling only 122 new members in all of February.

“It’s just common-sense economics here,” said Stephen Madarasz, a spokesman for the Civil Service Employees Association. “You’re looking at an enormous difference in benefits.”

Lawmakers approved the changes last month, requiring most employees who joined the pension system beginning April 1 to contribute more to their pensions while reducing how much money they are promised when they retire.

Public-employee unions, which had unsuccessfully fought to dissuade the Legislature from reducing pension benefits, aggressively campaigned, using social media and traditional forms of outreach, to persuade workers to sign up before the benefits dropped. The New York State United Teachers asked local union leaders to alert their members.

The Public Employees Federation sent an email alert to thousands of workers and posted on its Facebook page. And District Council 37, the city’s largest municipal employees’ union, used lunchtime meetings with its members, as well as Facebook, Twitter, public access television, and a variety of media appearances to reach its members.

Many city and state workers are automatically enrolled in a pension system, but others, particularly those with part-time jobs, choose whether to sign up, and some have not done so because participating in the system requires making a regular employee contribution to the pension fund.

“We encouraged them to get in now so that they wouldn’t have to work longer, receive less,” said Lillian Roberts, the executive director of District Council 37.

But Edmund J. McMahon, senior fellow at the Empire Center for New York State Policy, a conservative research group, suggested that the flood of applications was driven partly by hype and fear, rather than by a rational assessment of what he described as incremental changes to public employee pension plans. The unions, he said, “are talking about it as if it’s the difference between having a pension or no pension, which is ridiculous.”

New York is among dozens of states that have sought to reduce pension benefits to workers as the economy has slowed the growth of tax revenues and the size of pension-fund assets. State and local governments nationwide say they are struggling to pay retirement benefits promised to employees.