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Activists Fight Unfair Social Security Penalties

By Cynthia McCabe

July 21, 2009 — The mail still brings retired teacher Nancy Mickunas’ annual statement from Social Security showing how much of a monthly benefit she’s entitled to as the spouse of a retired worker who paid into the system. Yet the check for that amount stopped coming in the mail in 2004 when Mickunas retired after 35 years in the classroom.

That’s because of a federal law called the Government Pension Offset (GPO) that reduces or eliminates public employees’ Social Security benefits. Mickunas, of Hanover, Massachusetts, is one of hundreds of thousands of people nationwide who lose more than $3,600 per year under the law, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

“This is people’s money that they’ve earned and paid in,” says a frustrated Mickunas. “How can you earn something and then it’s unearned?”

Across the country, teacher Bonnie Cediel of Berkeley, California, is fighting the same battle. She lost all rights to her spousal benefit when she became a full-time teacher at age 50. Prior to that she was a homemaker, volunteer, and part-time teacher, which meant she received the spousal benefit.

One educator penalized after a career dedicated to the classroom. Another penalized for heading into the classroom to try to make a difference later in life. Not exactly a selling point to woo great teachers of any age into the profession.

But neither Mickunas nor Cediel are suffering the injustice quietly. They are two of thousands of activist educators springing up across the country, determined to get the offset repealed, as well as its equally troublesome cousin, the Windfall Elimination Provision (WEP), which reduces the Social Security benefits of people who also receive a public pension. (In other words, if they worked in the private sector for 15 years, then moved into teaching with a pension, the private sector benefits they earned are forfeited.)

Last month, Cediel and about 1,200 other California Teachers Association members and supporters rallied in Berkeley for the repeal of GPO/WEP. Mickunas and a group of grassroots state education Association activists delivered 50,000 signatures on a petition of support to Congress. Both are busy forming coalitions with similarly affected public servants including police, firefighters, and bus drivers.

Such coalitions, along with support from a public informed about the rank unfairness of the GPO/WEP penalties, will be essential to getting the laws repealed. Observers believe Congress could take them up as part of a larger Social Security reform effort. A majority of members in the House of Representatives have co-sponsored H.R. 235, the NEA-supported bill to repeal GPO/WEP, while the Senate companion (S. 484) has 28 co-sponsors, well short of a filibuster-proof 60 senators on record in support.

Even before they get those coalitions formed with people from other professions, activists often have to explain to those in their own how they’re unfairly losing their own money. “Sometimes our own members don’t believe that their government is going to do this,” said Mickunas.   

All supporters are encouraged to call their representatives and senators, even if they’ve already indicated they’ll support the repeal. In the states, Association activists are busy gathering stories from colleagues and coalition members affected by the laws. Ceidel’s group has turned to the Internet to help get the facts out, creating a website called socialsecurityfairness.com, which includes videos of California educators explaining their personal situations.

Both she and Mickunas are busy countering the myth that giving educators back their money will “bankrupt” Social Security as some opponents have claimed. “This is people’s money that they put in,” Mickunas said. “We’re not asking for something we haven’t already earned.”


RELATED LINKS

Learn more about NEA's work to repeal GPO/WEP

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