The practice of "double dipping" ballooned in 2011, with a growing number of employees who are a part of the state's retirement system retiring and then being rehired back to their old state job or another one.
Shawn Smith, of the Wisconsin Department of Employee Trust Fund, says more than 1,100 retired state employees were hired back, allowing them to collect their pension and a paycheck.
"It became an issue this year because of all the uncertainty over the state budget and maybe possible reductions in benefits that people near retirement felt an urgency to lock in their benefits," said Chris Sampson, a University of Wisconsin-Green Bay spokesman.
The practice of double dipping came to light earlier this year when UWGB Vice Chancellor Thomas Maki and Associate Provost Timothy Sewall suddenly left their respective $130,000 and $110,000 a year jobs.
University officials confirm the two were rehired a month later to their old jobs and salaries, but with the added benefit of collected a hefty state pension too. Pensions are confidential but estimated to be $40,000 for Sewall and $65,000 for Maki.
"The university was faced with 'how do we replace these critical people in the short term?' and we saw that it was legal to bring them back after they begin to draw their retirement checks," said Sampson.
UWGB officials say they did nothing wrong. The practice is perfectly legal as long as a deal is not pre-arranged to rehire the worker, who has to remain off the job for at least 30 days. The state Employee Trust Fund is reviewing the rehiring circumstances at UWGB.
"It might not be illegal, but is it right?" asks State Rep. Duey Stroebel (R-Cedarburg). Stroebel says state law needs to change.
"I mean it is called the Wisconsin Retirement System, so when you're retired it's there, and when you decide to unretire it wouldn't be there," said Stroebel.
Stroebel has introduced Assembly Bill 318 that would suspend one's retirement pension income while he or she is working full-time in a taxpayer-financed job. That would include teachers, police officers, firefighters and other city, state and municipal employees. Benefits, like medical insurance, would still be covered by the retirement fund. Those working part-time or seasonal hours would not be affected. And those already retired and rehired would be exempt.
"I think if you go up to anybody on the street and tap them on the shoulder and say, 'hey what do you think of double dipping?' I don't think you're going to find a lot of people who think double dipping is that good of a thing," Stroebel said.
"We had 51 openings this year, and of the 51 openings, we hired 10 veteran retired teachers who have taught for our school district," said Pulaski Schools superintendent Mel Lightner, who sees nothing wrong with hiring retired teachers.
In fact across the state half of all the pension-receiving rehires are working in our public schools, according to the state's retirement system.
Lightner says the retired teachers and school administrators offer more experience than many other applicants, and since they already receive their benefits through their pension plan, the district doesn't have those costs to worry about.
"We don't pay the WRS, the retirement stipend, we don't pay another health insurance benefit. If we hire another teacher we'd have to pay the health insurance," said Lightner.
The Pulaski School District declined to let us talk to any of the rehired teachers - they didn't want to single anyone out. But those 10 teachers aren't alone.
The Department of Employee Trust Funds in Madison reports that from 2005 through August 2011, 6,829 retired employees collecting a state pension, were rehired allowing them to also collect a paycheck. Of those, 1,100 were rehired in just the first eight months of this year.
While the practice has been going on for some time, the proposal is relatively new, just recently making its way through the Capitol. Early on, only Republicans signed on in support.
"The way it stands now I could not vote for it," said State Rep. Fred Kessler (D-Milwaukee).
Kessler is in a unique situation, given the fact he has been double dipping for several years.
"Yes I am drawing a pension as a judge for the 11 years I was there, but I'm not back on as a judge; I'm working as a state legislator," said Kessler.
In addition to his pension, Kessler has been receiving a legislator's salary since 2004. He feels if, like in his case, someone leaves one job for a different job there's no reason why they shouldn't be fully compensated.
"I just think outright prohibition would keep out people who otherwise can serve a very useful purpose, because of the experience they have in making a real positive contribution to Wisconsin," said Kessler.
But Stroebel says double dippers are hurting Wisconsin by taking more out of the pension system by retiring earlier, and then not paying into the state pension fund as a rehired worker.
"That is something we will need to have studied on an accuarial basis. The
Wisconsin Retirement System is extremely complex," said Employee Trust Funds spokeswoman Shawn Smith. "Any type of changes to the retirement system are things that are going to have pushes and pulls as it relates to the cost of the system."
While a cost analysis will be conducted to determine a savings to the state, Republican Gov. Scott Walker is on record saying he supports the bill.
Two of Walker's cabinet members - Corrections Secretary Gary Hamblin and Children and Families Secretary Eloise Anderson - both collect retirement pensions and six-figure salaries.
Legislators say the intention of the law allowing for retired workers to be rehired was to help cover for worker shortages. But Stroebel says with unemployment high there is no shortage of workers, leaving the current law up for debate.
An Assembly committee hearing on the issue is set for Nov. 17 at the Capitol.
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