NYSLRS and Public Employers: A Partnership That Works

When the Retirement System was created in 1921, it served a single employer: New York State. But that would quickly change as a series of new laws allowed local governments and other public employers to join the system.

In May 1922, Steuben County was the first county to join, and Newburgh became the first city the following month. In 1923, Onondaga was the first town and Avon was the first village to sign on. The Roosevelt Public Library on Long Island became the first library to join in 1924. In 1935, the system was opened to school districts and other public employers.

NYSLRS and Public Employers partnership

The NYSLRS Partnership

Today, close to 3,000 public employers participate in NYSLRS, and they employ about two-thirds of the system’s roughly half million active members. These employers’ active involvement has helped make NYSLRS one of the largest public retirement systems in America, serving 1.1 million members, retirees and beneficiaries.

This partnership includes a shared commitment to providing secure pension benefits to New York’s public employees. Participating employers make annual contributions to help fund the future benefits of their employees. Each year NYSLRS’ actuary calculates the contribution rates required to ensure that adequate assets are being accumulated to pay benefits. These contributions along with member contributions and our investments are what fund promised benefits. As a result, NYSLRS is one of the best-funded public retirement system in the country, with estimated assets of $247.7 billion as of December 31, 2020.

How NYSLRS Benefits Public Employers

Being part of NYSLRS allows municipal employers, regardless of their size, to offer prospective workers an attractive benefits package, including a defined benefit pension. With a defined benefit pension, those employees can be assured of a lifetime benefit during their retirement years.

In a recent survey, a majority of public employees said pensions are an important recruiting and retention tool. Eighty-six percent cited retirement benefits as a major reason they stay in their jobs. Another survey indicated that the general public agrees that pensions, particularly for public safety employees, are a good way to recruit and retain public workers.

How NYSLRS Benefits Communities

The benefits provided by NYSLRS help ensure that local governments can attract qualified and committed people to perform essential public services. Our members are police officers, firefighters, forest rangers and nurses. They plow roads, monitor water supplies, drive school buses, inspect restaurants, process unemployment claims and provide other vital services.

What’s more, after they retire and begin collecting their pensions, most NYSLRS members remain in New York, where they continue to contribute to their communities. In 2019, spending by NYSLRS retirees generated more than $15 billion in economic activity statewide and helped create an estimated 77,900 jobs.

Financial Literacy and Retirement

April is Financial Literacy Month. But what is financial literacy? Basically, it’s the ability to understand and use financial skills to make wise decisions about your finances.

Financial literacy encompasses a variety of skills, but we’d like to focus on some basic skills that are relevant to planning for a successful retirement. Whether you’re just starting your career, planning on retiring soon or already retired, mastering these skills will help you and your future financial security.

financial literacy

Taking Stock of Your Finances

A good place to start building your financial literacy is by getting a handle on your current financial situation. Ask yourself some basic questions:

  • How much do you earn and spend each month?  
  • How much debt do you have?
  • Do you have any major expenses on the horizon?

If you know where you stand, you’ll be in a better position to plan for the future.

If you’re planning for retirement, you can estimate your pension by using the benefit calculator in Retirement Online. (You can also check your future Social Security benefit online.)

Creating a Budget

This financial planning tool helps you track your income and expenses. Having a budget can help you make better financial decisions, avoid debt, prepare for emergencies and save money.

If you don’t know how to get started, here are some tips on creating a budget. If you plan to retire soon, you can use our worksheet to create a post-retirement budget.  

Understanding Interest Rates

Interest is great if you’re on the receiving end, but not so great if you are paying it. Unfortunately, consumers can pay very high interest rates on credit. The average interest rate on a new credit card account is nearly 18 percent, and many consumers pay 20 percent or more on their credit cards.

If you have credit card debt, and only pay the minimum each month, you’ll make little progress on reducing the balance while the interest you pay every month adds up. For example, if you owed $1,000 on a credit card with an 18 percent interest rate, and made payments of $40 a month, it would take you 71 months to pay off and your total interest cost would be nearly $500. On the other hand, if you paid $100 a month, it would be paid off in half the time and your total interest would be about $160.

Managing Debt

Debt is not necessarily bad, but it can easily derail your financial plans if you’re not careful. Credit cards pose a particular risk because they are so easy to use, but you can learn strategies to avoid credit card debt.

Saving

As a NYSLRS member, you’ll receive a lifetime pension that will be based on your years of service and earnings. But your personal retirement savings can be an important supplement to your pension and Social Security. It’s never too early or too late to start saving for retirement. To learn more building your savings, read our recent blog post Saving for Retirement. Is Now the Right Time?

Follow our blog for future posts on retirement savings and related topics.

How Your Tier 6 Contribution Rate Can Change

Most NYSLRS members contribute a percentage of their earnings to help fund pension benefits. For Tier 6 members (those who joined NYSLRS on or after April 1, 2012), that percentage, or contribution rate, can vary from year to year.

Tier 6 contribution rate

When Tier 6 Contribution Rates are Determined

A Tier 6 member’s contribution rate is calculated annually. New rates become effective each year on April 1, the beginning of the State’s fiscal year. Once your rate is set for a fiscal year, it will not change for the rest of that fiscal year. However, depending on your earnings, it may change the following year.

How Your Tier 6 Contribution Rate is Calculated

As a Tier 6 member, your contribution rate is based on how much you earn. Changes in your earnings may result in changes to your rate. The minimum rate is 3 percent of your earnings, and the maximum is 6 percent.

During your first three years as a NYSLRS member, your contribution rate is based on an estimated annual wage we receive from your employer. After three years, the rate is based on what you actually earned two years earlier. If you are a Tier 6 member with three or more years of membership in NYSLRS, this video will help explain how your contribution rate is determined:

See our Member Contributions page for more information.

Learn More

The amount you contribute to the Retirement System will not affect the amount of your pension. Your NYSLRS pension is a lifetime benefit based on your retirement plan, years of service and final average earnings. You can learn more about your pension by reading your plan booklet on our Publications page. For help finding the right plan book, read our blog post Knowing Your Retirement Plan is the Key to Retirement Planning.

The Common Retirement Fund: 100 Years of Strength and Security

In 1921, NYSLRS’ pension fund held several million dollars and provided benefits to just a few dozen State employees. Today, the Common Retirement Fund (Fund) provides more than a billion dollars per month to hundreds of thousands of retirees and beneficiaries.

The System’s founders showed foresight in establishing the framework for a sustainable retirement system capable of providing long-term pension security for its members and retirees. Today, one hundred years later, we are considered one of the strongest public pension funds in the country, thanks in large part to the stewardship of Comptroller DiNapoli, trustee of the Common Retirement Fund and administrator of NYSLRS for the past 14 years.

Comptroller DiNapoli’s diligent efforts to maintain the financial well-being of the Fund, the fact that NYSLRS’ participating employers contribute their share into the Fund, and New York’s constitutional requirement that lifetime pension benefits be guaranteed to all NYSLRS retirees — all these elements combine to ensure that NYSLRS retirees will enjoy secure benefits for generations to come.

Common Retirement Fund - A Snapshot of Growth

Investments

The Common Retirement Fund has been widely recognized as one the best-funded and best-managed public pension fund’s in the nation. (In June 2020, the Pew Charitable Trusts ranked NYSLRS as the second-best-funded public retirement system in the nation, based on 2018 data.) The cornerstone of the Fund’s reputation is its sound investment policies. At the direction of Comptroller DiNapoli, Fund managers use a long-term investment strategy designed to take advantage of growth opportunities during good economic times, while helping the Fund weather economic downturns.

The Comptroller seeks the input of a wide range of internal and external advisors, consultants and legal counsel who help to determine the best investment choices and allocation of assets for the Fund. These advisors provide independent advice and oversight of all investment decisions, serve as part of the chain of approval on all investment decisions before they reach the Comptroller for final approval and participate on advisory committees that meet periodically throughout the year.

Fund assets are invested in a diversified portfolio. About 55 percent of the assets are invested in publicly traded stocks. Other investments include bonds, mortgages, real estate and private equity.

The Fund is also strengthened by a forward-looking approach to addressing climate change-related investment risks and capitalizing on the opportunities created by the transition to a low-carbon economy. Comptroller DiNapoli recognizes that climate change poses an enormous threat to the global economy and to the Fund’s investment portfolio. Recently, he announced plans to transition the Fund’s portfolio to net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2040. This process will include a review of investments in energy companies and, where consistent with his fiduciary responsibility to maintain the long-term financial health of the Fund for NYSLRS members, divestment of companies that don’t meet minimum standards. This policy will help ensure that the Fund adapts to a changing global economy and maintains its growth in coming decades.

The Common Retirement Fund’s Impact on New York Businesses

The Common Retirement Fund’s In-State Private Equity Program invests in new and expanding New York companies and makes capital available to qualifying small businesses. As of March 31, 2020, the Fund’s private equity portfolio included investments in over 330 New York businesses with a total value of $1.9 billion. These investments boost the State’s economy while at the same time generating significant returns for the Fund.

Looking Forward

As the Common Retirement Fund’s assets have grown over the years, so have its obligations. As of March 31, 2020, there were 487,407 NYSLRS retirees and beneficiaries, who were paid $13.4 billion in benefits over the previous year. That’s up from 67,689 retirees and beneficiaries, who were paid $194 million in benefits in 1971. Roughly a third of NYSLRS members are expected to retire over the coming decade.

Comptroller DiNapoli’s focus on continuing the Fund’s record of strong growth ensures that the Retirement System will be ready to meet the challenges of the future. The New York State Common Retirement Fund’s estimated return in the third quarter of State Fiscal Year 2020-21 was 10.01 percent for the three-month period ending December 31, 2020, and the Fund ended the quarter with an estimated value of $247.7 billion. More than 1.1 million NYSLRS members, retirees and beneficiaries can continue to rely on the Retirement System for their retirement security.

Defined Benefit Pension Plans Boost National Economy

Defined benefit pension plans, including NYSLRS, provide retirement security for millions of Americans. Here in New York, NYSLRS pays out more than $10 billion in benefits each year to nearly 400,000 New York State residents. Much of that money is spent at home, contributing to local economies and supporting jobs.

What’s happening here is mirrored across the country. In 2018, defined benefit pension plans paid $578.7 billion to 23.8 million retired Americans, and those payments had a significant impact on the nation’s economy according to a recent study by the National Institute on Retirement Security (NIRS).

What Is a Defined Benefit Pension Plan?

A defined benefit pension plan provides a pension that is based on a preset formula that takes into account salary and years of service. Unlike a 401(k)-style retirement plan (also known as defined contribution plan), it is not based on how much you or your employer contribute to your retirement account. A defined benefit plan provides a fixed monthly payment at retirement and is usually a lifetime benefit.

With a defined contribution plan, the amount of money the employee has accumulated at retirement depends on the investment returns of their individual account. A market downturn, especially near retirement, can affect the value of their benefit. With a defined benefit plan, market risk is shared, so a downturn doesn’t affect the benefit.

Most importantly, defined benefit pension recipients don’t have to worry about their money running out during their retirement years.

economic impact of defined benefit pension plans

Who Gets Defined Benefits?

Defined benefit pension plans were once much more common in the United States. Today, defined benefit plans are more commonly offered by public employers, though about 16 percent of full-time private sector employees had access to a define benefit plan in 2018.

Who received these benefits? According to the NIRS study:

  • $308.7 billion was paid to 11 million state and local government retirees and beneficiaries;
  • $105.9 billion was paid to 2.6 million federal retirees and beneficiaries; and
  • $164.1 billion was paid to 10.1 million private sector retirees and beneficiaries.

Employers Benefit from Defined Benefit Plans

Not surprisingly, the financial security provided by defined benefit plans has proved popular among workers. In 2019, the NIRS surveyed 1,100 public employees about their benefits. Most said retirement benefits are good tools for recruiting and retaining workers, and 86 percent said their retirement benefits are a major reason they stick with their jobs.

National Economic Benefits of Defined Benefit Plans

The $578.7 billion in pension payments generated spending that supported 6.9 million American jobs with paychecks totaling $394.2 billion, the study estimated. But the economic benefit didn’t stop there. This is because of what economists call the multiplier effect, the measure of the true impact of each dollar spent as it works its way through the economy.  

The study found that each pension dollar paid had a $2.19 multiplier effect, which resulted in nearly $1.3 trillion in economic output. Real estate, food service, healthcare, and wholesale and retail trade were the sectors most impacted.

The study also noted that defined benefit pension payments have a stabilizing effect on local economies. Because they have a steady source of income, retirees with a defined benefit plan are less likely than retirees with defined contributions to curtail spending during economic downturns.

“These plans are a cost effective way to provide secure lifetime income for retired Americans and their beneficiaries after a lifetime of work. Moreover,” the study concluded, “DB pension plans generate economic benefits that reach well beyond those who earned benefits during their working years.”

Enhanced Death Benefit for Survivors of COVID-19 Victims

COVID-19 has resulted in tens of thousands of deaths across New York State. Sadly, the pandemic’s victims include NYSLRS members who carried out their essential duties despite personal risk.

The families of these selfless members can take some comfort in knowing that they may be eligible for enhanced death benefits. A new law provides certain beneficiaries of public employees who contract COVID-19 on the job and die from COVID-19 with an accidental death benefit.

death benefit for survivors of COVID-19 victims

Most NYSLRS members are eligible for a death benefit if they die while in service; this “ordinary death benefit” provides a member’s designated beneficiary or beneficiaries a single, lump sum payment, worth up to three years’ salary. Alternatively, an “accidental death benefit” may be available to certain beneficiaries if the member’s death is a result of an on-the-job accident. The NYSLRS accidental death benefit is a pension paid to beneficiaries that are defined in statute, first to a surviving spouse, if no spouse to dependent children, then to dependent parent(s).

Generally, the accidental death benefit is equal to 50 percent of the member’s final average salary or last year’s salary depending on the retirement plan the member is enrolled in. You can find your retirement plan information on our Publications page. In addition to the accidental death benefit, a special accidental death benefit may also be payable to a member of the New York State and Local Police and Fire Retirement System.

“This new law is an important step toward protecting public workers who are on the front lines fighting the coronavirus and helping their communities,” said New York State Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli. “If something happens to them, they deserve their retirement benefits and the peace of mind that their families are provided for.”  

Eligibility Requirements

A NYSLRS member’s statutory beneficiary would be eligible for the accidental death benefit if the member:

  • Worked at either their normal workplace or another assigned workplace, not their residence, as directed by their employer, on or after March 1, 2020;
  • Contracted COVID-19 within 45 days of the last day that the member reported for work;
  • Died on or before December 31, 2022; and
  • Died from COVID-19 or COVID-19 caused or contributed to their death.

The COVID-19 benefit also applies to members who were working as of March 1 but retired prior to July 1, 2020. If the retiree met the eligibility requirements, contracted COVID at work or within 45 days of last reporting to work, and died after retiring, but on or before December 31, 2020, their statutory beneficiary has the option of converting the service retirement benefit or disability retirement benefit to an accidental death benefit.

The COVID-19 benefit is available for all NYSLRS members (Employees’ Retirement System as well as Police and Fire Retirement System members), regardless of job title, or tier.

How to Claim the Benefit

When someone calls NYSLRS to report a death, they should let us know it was COVID-related. We’ll also ask for an original death certificate. We will then reach out to the beneficiary to assist them in claiming the benefit. For the COVID-19 death benefit, NYSLRS will confirm with the employer the dates that the member reported to work and request the required documentation showing COVID-19 as the cause of death. The COVID-19 death benefit will be reduced by any ordinary death benefits paid out to a beneficiary by NYSLRS.

Estimate Your Pension in Retirement Online

How much will your pension be?

Fortunately, it is now easier than ever to find out. Most NYSLRS members can create their own pension estimate in minutes using Retirement Online.

A Retirement Online estimate is based on the most up-to-date account information we have on file for you. You can enter different retirement dates to see how those choices would affect your benefit. When you’re done, you can print your pension estimate or save it for future reference.

estimate your pension in Retirement Online

How to Create Your Pension Estimate

Before you can use the new pension calculator, you will need a Retirement Online account. Once you sign in, go to the My Account Summary section of your account homepage and click the “Estimate my Pension Benefit” button.

You can enter an estimated retirement date (or retirement age), your current salary and expected annual salary increases. You can also include any service credit you plan to purchase and anticipated lump sum payment for unused vacation. If you add the birthdate for a beneficiary, you’ll also see the estimated monthly payment you would receive if you were to choose a payment option that provides a benefit for a survivor.

Any pension estimate you generate with the online calculator would be an approximation of your potential benefit; it is not a guarantee that you’ll receive a certain amount when you retire.

Alternative Ways to Get an Estimate

While more than 90 percent of NYSLRS members (most Tier 3 through 6 members) can use the new benefit calculator, some members should have NYSLRS generate their benefit estimate.

For example, if you recently transferred your membership to NYSLRS or are covered under certain special plans, it would be better if NYSLRS created an estimate for you. The system will notify you if your estimate cannot be completed using Retirement Online’s estimate tool. Please contact us to request a pension estimate if you receive this notification. Also, if you are in Tiers 1 through 4, you can still use the Quick Calculator on the NYSLRS website. The Quick Calculator generates estimates based on information you provide.

Retirement Planning: Know Your Membership Milestones

Even if your retirement is years in the future, you should be aware of certain membership milestones that may help you narrow down when to retire.

There are two types of membership milestones: those pertaining to age and those pertaining to service credit. Since most NYSLRS members reach service credit milestones first, we’ll start with them.

Service Credit Milestones

Vesting is a key retirement milestone. Once you become vested, you will be eligible for a NYSLRS pension even if you leave public employment before retirement. Members in Tiers 1-4 with at least five years of credited service are vested. (Most members in these tiers have already reached this milestone.) Tier 5 and 6 members must have ten years of credited service to be vested.

membership milestones - service credit

After reaching 20 years of service, most members will be eligible to have a higher percentage of their final average earnings included in their pension benefit. How that benefit is calculated depends on your retirement plan and tier. You can find more information in your retirement plan booklet.

Members in some special plans can retire with 20 years of service, regardless of their age. Other special plans allow for retirement after 25 years, regardless of age.

At 30 years of service, Tier 2-4 members who are at least 55 years old can retire without a pension reduction.

Age Milestones

Once you reach your full retirement age, you can retire without a pension reduction. For Tiers 2-5, the full retirement age is 62. The full retirement age for Tier 6 members is 63.

membership milestones - age

Members in regular retirement plans can retire as early as age 55, but they may face a pension reduction if they retire before their full retirement age. The closer you are to your full retirement age at retirement, the less the reduction will be.

If you would like to see what your pension would be at different ages, use Retirement Online’s pension benefit estimator.

More About NYSLRS Membership Milestones

For more information about NYSLRS milestones, please see:

The 3-Legged Stool: An Approach to Retirement Confidence

Most American workers believe they will have enough money to live comfortably after they retire, but do you share their retirement confidence?

As a NYSLRS member with a defined benefit pension plan, you have reason to be optimistic about retirement. But there is more to a financially secure retirement than having a pension. Think of retirement security as a three-legged stool, with three parts working together to provide financial stability when your working days are over. Understanding each of these sources of income will help you better plan for your future and boost your retirement confidence.

retirement confidence

Leg 1: Your NYSLRS Pension

At retirement, vested NYSLRS members are eligible for a pension based on their final average earnings and the number of years they’ve worked in public service. Your pension is a lifetime benefit, which means you’ll receive a monthly payment for the rest of your life, no matter how long you live. Unlike workers who rely on a 401(k)-style retirement plan, you won’t have to worry about your money running out.

Most members can use Retirement Online to estimate how much their pension will be. But if you’re a long way from retirement, it may be better to think in terms of earnings replacement. Financial advisers estimate you’ll need to replace 70 to 80 percent of your income to retire with financial confidence. Your pension can help get you there. For example, if you retire with 30 years of service, your NYSLRS pension could replace more than half of your earnings. (Replacement percentages vary among retirement plans. You can find out more in your retirement plan booklet.)

Leg 2: Social Security

Less than half of Americans believe Social Security will be there for them when they retire, according to a recent poll, and younger workers are even more pessimistic about Social Security’s future. While there’s no denying that Social Security faces challenges, things aren’t as bleak as some people think.

Social Security trustees estimate that Social Security reserves will be depleted by 2035 and they will only be able to pay about 76 percent of scheduled retirement benefits. But consider this: Social Security now replaces about 36 percent of the wages of a typical worker who retires at full retirement age. In the future, even if it only replaces 25 to 30 percent of pre-retirement earnings, it would still be a significant source of retirement income.

But these are worse case scenarios. The truth is that lawmakers have many policy options that could reduce or eliminate the long-term financing shortfalls in Social Security. It seems likely those options will be explored.

Leg 3: Retirement Savings

Having a secure, lifetime pension will be a substantial financial asset, but it’s still important to save money for retirement. A retirement nest egg can help in case of an emergency, act as a hedge against inflation and boost your retirement confidence.

Saving is the retirement factor you have the most control over. You decide when to start, how much to save and how your money will be invested. The key is to start saving early, so your money has time to grow, even if you can only afford to save a small amount in the beginning.

With the New York State Deferred Compensation Plan, you can start out by saving as little as $10 per pay period. That money would be automatically deducted from your paycheck, so you won’t even have to think about it. The money is tax-deferred, which means you don’t pay income taxes on your Plan account contributions or earnings until you begin to take payments from your account. This may lower your taxable income now and in retirement. The Deferred Compensation plan is not affiliated with NYSLRS, but New York State employees and some municipal employees can participate. If you’re a municipal employee, ask your employer if you’re eligible for the Deferred Compensation Plan or another retirement savings plan.

Make Sure You Receive Your Member Annual Statement

Member annual statements are distributed to NYSLRS members each spring (retiree statements are delivered by early March). It’s important that you make sure your contact information is correct to ensure you receive your Statement. (Note: Updating your contact information with your employer doesn’t update it with NYSLRS.)

Use Retirement Online to Check or Update Your Contact Information

The fastest way to check your contact information, and update it if needed, is through Retirement Online. Sign in to your Retirement Online account, go to the ‘My Profile Information’ area of your Account Homepage and click “Update” next to your mailing address or email address to make corrections.  

If you have trouble signing in to your account, please read our Retirement Online Tools and Tips blog post for help.

If you don’t have a Retirement Online account, it’s easy to create one. Visit our Retirement Online for Members page and click ‘Register Now’ under the Sign In button. When you create your account, you’ll be asked to provide the ZIP code of your home address. If it doesn’t recognize your current ZIP code, it’s likely we have an older address on file for you. Please use the older ZIP code to create your account — you can update your address after you register. If you need assistance with Retirement Online, please contact us.

You can also update your contact information using our secure contact form, as long as your new mailing address is not a PO Box. Be sure to complete all fields and include your old and new contact information.

contact information

Get Your Statement Faster

You’ll receive your Statement faster if you choose the email option in Retirement Online. If you choose this option, you’ll receive an email that directs you to Retirement Online to see your Statement as soon as it’s ready. To choose your Statement delivery preference, go to the ‘My Profile Information’ area of your Retirement Online Account Homepage and click “Update” next to ‘Member Annual Statement by.’

You can also receive other correspondence from us by email by clicking “Update” next to ‘Contact by.’ If you choose ‘Mail’ or don’t select a preference, you will receive letters through the US Postal Service.

Note: For security purposes, certain correspondence (like tax forms) will only be sent by mail.

Questions about Your Statement?

Visit our Member Annual Statement page for answers to common questions. Remember that your Statement provides information as of March 31, 2021 — the end of the State fiscal year. However, you can sign in to Retirement Online throughout the year to view current account information.

Please share this post with friends, family or coworkers who are NYSLRS members so they can also check their contact information.