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Salisbury firefighters struggle with Social Security benefits because of decades-old decision

By Natalie Anderson
natalie.anderson@salisburypost.com

SALISBURY — After a 27-year career with the Salisbury Fire Department, former Capt. Paul Rendleman expected to receive $1,300 a month in survivor benefits after the 2019 death of his wife, Jeanette.

Despite paying into Social Security from other jobs worked, those survivor benefits were reduced to $81 a month because he was a retired firefighter. Then in May, he had to pay it all back.

Like many retired individuals, Rendleman and his wife made plans to ensure the other was financially taken care of when either of them died. But he now questions whether he would have pursued a career as a firefighter if he knew the consequences of a decision decades before his tenure. He now wants younger firefighters who may not understand Social Security to learn what he’s experienced first-hand.

“I don’t know if I ever would’ve worked at the Salisbury Fire Department if I had known the impact of retirement after losing my wife,” Rendleman said. “I’m lucky I had another business that I had some money in, but a lot of these guys don’t have anything else.”

Some amendments to the Social Security program passed in the 1950s allowed states the option to provide Social Security coverage to public employees. Fire departments had the option to opt out if they had another retirement plan in place.

Salisbury was among those that opted out. As a result, Salisbury’s firefighters are the only employees in city government not subject to Social Security withholding despite being covered by the retirement plan through the Local Government Employees’ Retirement System.

“We’re paying the price for something those guys did back then,” Rendleman said. “And we’re stuck in a barrel with it.”

The Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1990 extended Social Security coverage to state or local government employees who weren’t covered by a retirement system. The National Association of State Retirement Administrators estimates approximately one-fourth of state and local government employees across the nation participate in a public retirement system in lieu of Social Security, which includes more than two-thirds of firefighters and other first responders.

But despite paying more than the full 40 quarters, or 10 years, required in the Social Security program from other jobs worked, Rendleman said he now only receives $135 from Social Security. He blames two federal provisions passed in 1983.

The Government Pension Offset and Windfall Elimination Provision both can penalize those receiving or expected to receive Social Security benefits. They have affected nearly one-third of educators and one-fifth of public employees, according to ssfairness.org, a website dedicated to repealing the provisions. The WEP is a penalty imposed on one’s Social Security benefit when that person begins to collect a pension from a public agency after not paying Social Security taxes during employment. The GPO can penalize those who apply for Social Security spousal or survivor benefits.

Rendleman says the provisions penalize those who worked two jobs, which is common among firefighters. While one job entitled them to Social Security benefits, the other didn’t require taxes to be paid for the program.

“I don’t think it’s right that I can’t get my Social Security back that I paid in,” Rendleman said. “At no time did anyone ever tell us we wouldn’t be able to get full spousal benefits. They call it ‘double-dipping,’ but I call it ‘double-paid.'”

Darrel Nichols is another retired Salisbury firefighter facing a similar challenge. Nichols worked with the Salisbury Fire Department from 1990 to 2014 before a spinal cord tumor put him out of work from the department and his farm. Like Rendleman, Nichols worked another job where he paid into Social Security. Today, he’s not eligible for any Social Security disability benefits beyond the 2.5 years of long-term disability provided by the city.

“I want (firefighters) to know that they’re going to miss out on a benefit that the vast majority of other who work receive,” Nichols said. “They’re one call away from a career-ending disability.”

City Manager Lane Bailey said an estimated 25% units of government in North Carolina are in “similar boats,” including the city of Charlotte. Like Salisbury, firefighters in Charlotte do not contribute to Social Security payroll taxes, which is 6.2% not including Medicare. Instead, the city is a plan sponsor and responsible for funding the Charlotte Firefighters’ Retirement System.

Rick Fesperman, a retired assistant chief who began his 30-year tenure with Salisbury Fire in 1974, said firefighters back then were accustomed to working 24 hours on and 24 hours off. But due to the small pay compared to many other jobs in the private sector, many firefighters weren’t keen on an additional chunk being taken from their paychecks.

“The financial benefit is more than what it would be to pay in each month,” Nichols said.

Fortunately, Fesperman said, he worked other jobs before joining the department and after his retirement nearly 16 years ago. But the nearly $200 received from Social Security from those other jobs is reduced to $66 once Medicare costs are taken out.

Repealing the GPO and WEP, Fesperman added, would allow those firefighters who have worked other jobs to draw more of their entitled benefits.

All three told the Post they have sent letters detailing these challenges to local, state and federal leaders. Ultimately, “it falls on deaf ears,” Fesperman said.

There have been multiple attempts to repeal the GPO and WEP at the federal level, with the most recent being the bipartisan House Resolution 82, or the “Social Security Fairness Act of 2021,” led by Rep. Rodney Davis, a Republican from Illinois. To date, more than 180 members of Congress have signed onto the legislation, including four Democrats from North Carolina. However, the bill has not advanced out of the House Ways and Means Committee after referral in January.

Bailey said the city of Salisbury and Fire Chief Bob Parnell have explored options to keep the Salisbury Fire Department’s benefits competitive. Among those options is the establishment of a fund Salisbury firefighters could choose to pay into and receive a match of the same rate from the city. Bailey said an option like this would allow firefighters to choose whether they want to pay into the fund or not.

Included in the 2021-22 budget, which began July 1, is an increase to all city employees’ 401K match from the city, raising the rate from 3% to 4%. Bailey said an additional and separate increase for firefighters has also been discussed as another option for more compensation. Currently, police officers receive a 5% 401K match.

The challenge, Bailey said, is reaching a super-majority among firefighters who want to opt back into the city’s Social Security program, especially among younger firefighters who may not count on the viability of Social Security decades from now or who don’t want the required 6.2% tax taken from their salary.

Additionally, at least 40 quarters of time, with each quarter representing three months, must be paid in. That length of time means it would take at least 10 years before any firefighter could benefit from the opt-in, Bailey said. So, opting back in wouldn’t benefit those who are close to retirement or those who already have retired.

With the city also providing a match when employees pay Social Security taxes, opting back in also impacts the city budget. Based on the salaries of 88 Salisbury firefighters, including the chief, that amounts to around $260,000, Bailey said.

Contact reporter Natalie Anderson at 704-797-4246.

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