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By Lynn Arditi November 13, 2011

Rhode Island AARP head Kathleen Connell says 60 percent of state retirees don’t get Social Security

Among the more vocal critics of the Chafee administration’s plan to overhaul the state pension system is the head of the Rhode Island chapter of the AARP.

Kathleen S. Connell, a former secretary of state and one-time teacher, testified before a joint meeting of the Senate and House Finance Committees on Oct. 26 that the plan to suspend annual cost-of-living increases for retirees would be especially onerous for those who don’t collect Social Security.

Responding to a question posed by Senate Finance Chairman Daniel DaPonte about how many retirees don’t get Social Security, Connell said:  "I believe the figure is on the order of 60 percent of the state retirees -- which are the ones we are addressing -- don’t get Social Security.’’

Her statement prompted some head-shaking in the audience. So we decided to check it out.

We contacted the Rhode Island AARP, and John Martin, the group’s spokesman, responded in an e-mail. "This has been called to our attention,’’ Martin wrote.

Martin said that while Connell did, indeed, say "state retirees," she actually meant "state teacher retirees [emphasis added] who do not collect Social Security."

That’s "around 50 percent," he said. (The figure, he said, is based on data from the state Retirement System and the National Institute on Retirement Security, a nonprofit policy research organization in Washington.)

But teachers were never specifically mentioned during the exchange, and we think anyone listening would assume, as we did, that Connell was referring to all retirees in the state-run plans that were being discussed.

So we still wanted to know the answer to the Senate chairman’s question: How many state retirees don’t receive Social Security?

The facts

Social Security, the federal insurance program signed into law by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, is designed to pay a post-retirement income to workers who contributed to the program.

In 1950, Congress expanded Social Security coverage to state and local government employees not covered by other retirement plans; in 1954, the act was amended again to make it available to all state and local employees, except for police officers and firefighters.

But state participation was voluntary. Massachusetts, for example, declined coverage for its public employees.

Rhode Island opted into the Social Security system for most state workers, but made local participation optional.

Participation requires contributions from both employers and employees. Some communities chose not to join. Others did sign on. The result is a patchwork system of coverage.

As far as we could tell, no single agency in Rhode Island knows the precise number of retirees in the state system who are covered by Social Security -- not even the state Office of the General Treasurer, according to its spokeswoman, Joy Fox.

But we did manage to get a good estimate. Here’s how we did it.

The state retirement system comprises five separate pension plans. The largest has 11,421 retired state employees and beneficiaries (generally spouses or children),  according to the Employees’ Retirement System of Rhode Island June 30, 2010, actuarial report. All of them, Fox said, are covered by Social Security.

The next largest plan covers teachers, with 10,213 retirees and beneficiaries, according to the same actuarial report.

Based on the number of active teachers in each school district and the Social Security Agreements filed with the state, the treasurer’s office estimates that about half -- roughly 5,100 retired teachers -- are covered by Social Security.

Teachers in 14 of the state’s 37 school districts -- including Providence, Pawtucket, North Providence, Warwick and Woonsocket -- are covered by Social Security, according to the Rhode Island Association of School Committees.

Frank Flynn, president of the Rhode Island Federation of Teachers and Health Professionals, whose members work for 11 of the 15 school districts, agrees with the treasurer’s estimate.

After teachers, the next largest group of retirees in the state system  -- just under 4,500 -- are local police, firefighters and municipal employees.

The Rhode Island League of Cities and Towns reports its survey found that all municipal employees in Rhode Island are covered by Social Security. But that’s not the case with police and firefighters.

In fact, several of the state’s larger, urban police and fire departments -- including Providence -- have no Social Security coverage, according to the League’s survey.

With the help of one of our newsroom data gurus, we looked at the records of more than 4,000 retired municipal, police and firefighters and their beneficiaries (or 90 percent of that group) in the state system. We found that about 95 percent of them are covered by Social Security.

So, all state employees, roughly half of all teachers and 95 percent of retired municipal, police and firefighters in the state retirement system get Social Security.

The remaining two groups of retirees in the state system are judges and state police.

All of the 81 retired judges and their beneficiaries get Social Security, according to Craig Berke, a spokesman for the state judiciary system.

And none of the 266 retired state police are covered by Social Security.

Add all the numbers up, and the share of retirees in the state-run plans who do get Social Security is about 78 percent.  

Even if we added in another 3,000 or so police and firefighters in municipally-run pension plans, almost all of whom don’t get Social Security, the overall percentage of those covered would still be 70 percent.

(A week after Connell’s testimony, Mark Dingley, the state’s deputy treasurer, testified before the same committee that the share of current employees in state-run plans is about 75 percent.)

The ruling

Connell was clearly wrong when she said that 60 percent of "state retirees" don’t get Social Security. Our research found it’s about 22 percent.

Connell’s spokesman said she meant retired teachers, not all retirees, although she didn’t make that distinction at the time. Even then, that number is 50 percent, not 60 percent.

We rule Connell’s statement False.

Correction: The initial version of this item reported that teachers in the City of Central Falls, R.I., were covered by Social Security. That was based on information from the Rhode Island Association of School Committees. After this item was published, the association said that it had made a mistake. In fact, Central Falls teachers are not covered by Social Security.

(Get updates from PolitiFactRI on Twitter. To comment or offer your ruling, visit us on our PolitiFact Rhode Island Facebook page.)

Our Sources, Second Joint House and Senate Finance Committee Pension Hearing, October 26, 2011. Video clip labeled Part 2, at 28:25

Interview and e-mails, Joy Fox, spokeswoman, Rhode Island Office of The General Treasurer, Nov. 3, 10, 2011

Mark Dingley, deputy treasurer, Rhode Island Office of The General Treasurer, Nov. 10, 2011

Interviews and e-mails, Peder Schaefer, associate director, Rhode Island League of Cities and Towns, Nov. 7, 8, 9, 10, 2011

Interview, Frank Flynn, president, Rhode Island Federation of Teachers and Health Professionals, Nov. 8, 2011

Interview and e-mails, Tim Duffy, Rhode Island Association of School Committees, Nov. 7, 8, 2011

E-mails, Craig Berke, spokesman, Rhode Island Judiciary, Nov. 7, 2011

E-mails, John Martin, AARP Rhode Island, Nov. 3, 2011

Interview, Colleen Halloran-Villandry, director of finance, Rhode Island State Police, Nov. 10, 2011

Data analysis, Paul Parker, reporter, The Providence Journal, Nov. 7. 2011

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Rhode Island AARP head Kathleen Connell says 60 percent of state retirees don’t get Social Security

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