Building an Economy that Works for Everyone

Seattle’s Encouraging Move Towards Universal Retirement Coverage

Seattle Mayor Tim Burgess has announced his intention to implement a retirement savings plan for private sector employees whose employers do not provide any kind of retirement savings vehicles. In the Seattle metro region, that’s about a third of all workers. While Mayor Burgess’ proposal is far from righting the pension rollbacks of the past half century, it is a step in the right direction.

Over the past four decades, businesses have been stepping away from the social wages of defined benefit retirement plans, full coverage of health care, and other perks. Looking at the share of national income that went to labor (that is, workers) and the share that went to capital (that is, corporations), there was a decisive shift from 2000 to 2015 – about 7 percent, or $535 billion a year, from workers to corporations.

Three years ago, the Washington state taxpayer-subsidized Boeing Company discontinued its defined benefit pension, forcing the Machinist union to revote on a contract to replace pensions with deferred compensation savings.

The cuts to benefits have hit workers hard across the board – but are especially damaging to lower-wage workers, who are less likely to work for employers that enable them to save for retirement. This lack of retirement savings disproportionately penalizes African-American and Hispanic workers, who tend to work in the toughest jobs with the lowest wages.

Mayor Burgess’ proposal is necessary and a step forward, although it is insufficient. His proposal will mandate that all private sector business that do not offer employees a savings vehicle for retirement must participate in a “secure choice” plan that will enable all employees to save from their own paychecks. It does not mandate (or actually allow) any employer contributions in these savings vehicles.

Burgess’s proposal is the first such program at the city level, similar to the plan enacted in California. It would create a Seattle Retirement Savings Plan (SRSP), through which employees would contribute to a retirement plan similar to a 401(k). The savings would be in low-risk investments, such as US Treasury bonds. As the program matures, employees would be able to contribute to a select choice of retirement savings options, at their discretion. Their accounts would be portable within the city of Seattle, meaning that if they switch jobs, they would not have to start saving over again. Employees could choose to opt out.

If take-up in the Seattle program is good, we can expect up to 50,000 new savings accounts. That’s up to 50,000 people who haven’t been had access to the 401(k)s many of us take for granted. But without employer contributions, it lets employers off the hook and continues a tiered system of benefits between white- and blue-collar workers.

If we are serious about retirement, we need a retirement savings program with accounts that are completely portable, transparent, with low administrative costs, progressive in benefits and covering all workers. We have that now: Social Security. But at current levels, it just doesn’t provide enough income for retirees. The average Social Security benefit for retired workers in our state hovers around $1,000 a month. Try keeping your head above water on that.

There is no chance that federal government, under President Donald Trump, will protect or increase Social Security benefits. But we could in Washington. We could build a state supplemental social security program, with contributions from both workers and employers. That would truly protect our seniors – and us – from federal cuts and inaction.

But until then, Seattle’s small step for retirement savings at least allows workers greater choice and access to provide themselves with a more secure retirement.

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