The problem with the $600,000 retirement checkBlog added by Andy Stonehouse on December 17, 2012
Andy Stonehouse

Andy Stonehouse

Joined: October 13, 2011

We live in precarious times, in many, many ways. But if you've got the attention span to at least look beyond the increasingly tragic daily headlines, you probably see a less newsworthy calamity on the horizon - that being the collective chaos of America's retirement plans.

I secretly suspect that the recent furor over that huge Powerball jackpot was partially the sound of the entire nation saying, "yes, I will admit it: Winning the lottery really is my retirement plan."

So it comes as a bit of a shock - especially when we hear that the country's public pension systems are so drastically and systematically underfunded that Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn has to use a cartoon snake to get anyone to notice - that some folks are walking into retirement with $600,000 checks as part of their public employee retirement package.

Bloomberg is in the midst of a comprehensive study on the colossal mess that America's payroll systems are in, with the poster child for that problem being once-prosperous and nation-leading California.

One might wonder why California's state employee pension fund would make such a big deal about getting the money it's owed by a series of legitimately financially ruined cities (San Bernardino, the faded jewel of the Inland Empire, and the never-particularly-attractive Stockton) - so much so that a court case next week might rewrite federal bankruptcy guidelines in the process.

As it turns out, CalPERS needs the money, as promised retirement benefits to state employees can be quite the extreme deal out in the Golden State.

Those of us who dream of state-level sick leave benefits (that's me raising my hand) can be particularly astonished at the case of one particularly healthy state mental hospital psychiatrist who evidently never used any of her sick days (or vacation time) over 30 or so years, earning her a check for $609,000 as she cleaned out her desk.

Maybe what they say about washing your hands a lot is true.

Jokes aside, it's a particularly California-centric phenomenon that means that the already stretched-to-the-limit state pension system, not to mention the budgets of public universities and, yes, cities like San Bernardino, tend to get it in the teeth when they have to cough up a gigantic payment for their retirees.

Texas, of course, doesn't allow you to bankroll your sick time or vacation, nor do many other states.

And over here in the private sector, I can suspect that your HR manager - or the person who does the payroll - would likely have a chat with you and ask you to use a few of those sick days, as they certainly wouldn't be banked for decades until your eventual retirement. The rollovers simply wouldn't happen, ever.

This is one particular case where I'd say that a little extra scrutiny on the overly generous benefits awarded to some state retirees might not be a bad thing. As much as we'd all love to have a little "boat money" included in our send-off to retirement.

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