This article appeared in the 2017 summer issue of The Classroom Teacher.

Most teachers have heard that their eligibility for Social Security might be affected, but the subject is complicated. Information traveling the “teacher grapevine” is not always completely accurate, and a refresher on the basics might be helpful. The following Q&A is for employees in districts not participating in Social Security.

For assistance regarding your personal situation, please schedule an in-person meeting with your local Social Security office; for advice regarding your overall retirement plans, consider consulting a financial advisor.

Windfall Elimination Provision (WEP) — federal law that reduces benefits for people who have earned Social Security through their own employment where they paid into the system.

Government Pension Offset (GPO) — federal law that reduces or even eliminates spousal benefits that a person would otherwise be entitled to through their spouse.

I worked as an accountant and earned Social Security benefits before I switched to teaching. Will I get my Social Security benefit?

You will receive a Social Security benefit, but if you have taught (or intend to teach) for five or more years in a non-Social Security district, you’ll likely be affected by the WEP. It’s tricky to calculate the actual amount that you’ll be penalized, but the formula will not eliminate your entire benefit. The WEP penalty lessens for those who have at least 20 years of Social Security participation. Every year past 20 years helps, and if you have at least 30 years paying into Social Security you’re exempt from the WEP completely. At 25 years, for example, your penalty will not be terribly high.

I earned benefits through a previous job, and have only worked at my non-Social Security school district for a few years — can I do anything to avoid the WEP? If I choose not to retire and get a TRS pension, will that help? 

The WEP applies to those who are eligible for a TRS pension. If you have worked for your district fewer than five years and are not vested in TRS, you can avoid the WEP by withdrawing your TRS funds. But if you have worked for at least five years for a TRS-covered employer not participating in Social Security, the WEP will apply to you — even if you withdraw your TRS funds in a lump sum instead of retiring and receiving a monthly pension.

I haven’t earned Social Security myself, but thought I was entitled to half of my spouse’s Social Security benefits. Am I wrong?

Unfortunately, if you retire through TRS and do not work for your last five years for a district or other entity that participates in both TRS and Social Security, you will be affected by the GPO. Under this provision, your spousal Social Security benefit will be reduced by 2/3 of your TRS benefit. Your TRS check is not affected. For many teachers whose TRS benefits are relatively high, subtracting 2/3 of their TRS check from their Social Security can completely eliminate the Social Security benefit.

Is there any way to avoid the GPO?

As mentioned in the previous answer, if you work for your last five years for an employer that participates in both TRS and Social Security, you are exempted. Also, if you withdraw your TRS funds instead of retiring and receiving a TRS monthly check, you can be exempted. However, this may not be the wisest strategy for most retirees (you would lose eligibility for TRS-Care, for example), and TCTA strongly recommends consulting with a financial advisor before making such a decision.

Is Congress ever going to repeal these laws?

Full repeal is not currently likely because of the high cost. The GPO and WEP lower benefits not only for Texas teachers but for other public employees in Texas and 14 other states. It would be very expensive to begin providing full benefits to these teachers and other public employees. Also, since a majority of states are not affected, it has been difficult to generate majority support in Congress. If these provisions are repealed, it would almost certainly happen as part of a Social Security overhaul, which Congress has to date been unwilling to tackle.

Also, it’s important for teachers to realize that there are policy reasons for these laws. The penalties put affected employees at an unfair disadvantage, but a fair adjustment is difficult to develop. Congressman Kevin Brady (R-Texas) has devised a re-structure of the WEP that would make the offset more equitable. It would benefit most retirees who are subject to it, but the legislation has not progressed very far in Congress despite Brady’s efforts.

Are there current bills we should be watching?

HR 1205 by Rep. Rodney Davis (R-Ill.) and S 915 by Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) are the House and Senate bills enacting the Social Security Fairness Act of 2017, which would totally repeal both the GPO and WEP.  

Rep. Brady is expected to refile his alternate version of the WEP, but the bill has not yet been introduced in the current session.