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Closing the Pension Gap

ESPs fight for equity in their retirement plans.

By John Rosales

In 1988, when Loriann Darrell went to work for Vermont’s Springfield School District, her pension wasn’t even a blip on her radar. “I was in my early 20s and not thinking about retirement,” says Darrell, an instructional assistant at Gateway School.

For the next eight years, Darrell worked part-time. Working fewer than the required 30 hours a week, she did not qualify for retirement coverage through the state-administered Vermont Municipal Employees’ Retirement System (VMERS). Just as important, she remained woefully unaware of pension plans—until she met a fellow education support professional (ESP) who had worked 20 hours a week for about
20 years.

“She retired with no benefits, except, I assume, Social Security,” Darrell recalls. “If I knew then what I know now, I would have looked for more hours when I started working.”

For the past decade, Darrell’s full-time work at Gateway has provided her with a defined-benefit pension plan that will pay her about $841 a month after she retires at age 62 in 2024. “My mortgage will be paid,” she says, “but I may still need other sources of income.” 

Loriann Darrell helps fellow ESPs strategize golden years planning. Photo: Jon Olender

While teachers in all 50 states have access to some sort of retirement plan, an NEA study found significant coverage gaps between teachers and ESPs, particularly in Connecticut, Maine, North Dakota, and Vermont, where only 10 percent of ESPs have retirement benefits. Darrell is now co-chair of the Vermont-NEA ESP Retirement Study Committee. Formed in 2003, the group recommends improvements and helps Vermont locals bargain for the same rights as teachers.
“We’re advocates,” says Darrell, a member of the Springfield Support Staff Association. “Most ESPs look at their work as a career. With that should come job and pension security.”

According to NEA’s 2004 study, The Status of Retirement Coverage for ESPs, support professionals are generally covered by retirement plans or systems in 46 states. In 32 states where individual districts provide retirement coverage, teachers and ESPs are usually covered by the same plan. In other states, ESP retirement plans depend on employees’ job classifications. In some, the state requires support professionals to be covered in a different system than teachers. In others, individual districts have the option of joining the statewide system; when they don’t, coverage gaps can arise.

ESPs usually have more immediate worries than retirement, however. “Salary increases and livable wages are the biggest concerns,” says Vermont-NEA President Angelo Dorta. “It’s hard for them to think about retirement benefits when they’re having trouble meeting living expenses today.”

But low pay today also translates into more meager pensions down the road. Given that defined-benefit pensions are usually calculated based on final average earnings, ESPs often receive relatively low benefits throughout retirement. Full-time ESPs earn an average of $25,616, according to the 2005 NEA ESP Databook. About one-quarter of all ESPs nationwide work less than 30 hours a week, and nearly 7 in 10 earn less than $25,000 a year.
NEA’s retirement study encourages state Associations to take these steps:

Advocate for mandatory coverage of ESPs by a retirement system or plan that provides a guaranteed benefit without assuming risk, such as defined-benefit pension plans, which guarantee a set monthly income upon retirement.

Work with legislators, school board members, and other policymakers in states where coverage gaps exist.

Lobby for increased wages for ESPs through initiatives such as NEA’s living wage campaign.

Use collective bargaining to push for full-time positions or full benefits for part-time employees.

As Darrell looks ahead nearly two decades, she expects that equity built up in her home and a part-time job will help finance her retirement. But she wishes she’d invested sooner in a pension.

“The sooner you pay into a system, the better off you are,” she says.

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