Wave of retirements in Ill. state government ebbs

2013-06-29T10:00:00Z 2013-06-29T23:12:20Z Wave of retirements in Ill. state government ebbsKurt Erickson Lee Springfield Bureau nwitimes.com
June 29, 2013 10:00 am  • 

SPRINGFIELD | A tsunami of retirements by state government workers appears to have crested.

According to the State Employee Retirement Systems, about 3,100 employees retired in the fiscal year that ends Sunday.

That compares with about 4,700 employees who traded in their jobs for their pensions in the fiscal year that ended June 30, 2012.

“It’s definitely fallen off,” said SERS Executive Director Tim Blair.

In a typical year, Blair said, about 2,200 employees leave the state payroll and start collecting retirement checks.

But when Gov. Pat Quinn and lawmakers began trying to overhaul the state’s severely underfunded pension systems four years ago, the number of retirees began to rise as workers hoped that locking in their benefits could somehow shield them from any potential reductions in benefits.

It remains unclear whether that strategy will have any merit. The General Assembly has been unable to agree on any pension system fixes. And even if the House and Senate do finally reach an agreement, any changes are expected to be fought vigorously in court.

The drop in the number of retirements, combined with some additional hiring by the state, appears to have helped slow the decade’s long reduction of the state workforce.

During the 1990s, the state workforce topped 80,000 employees. It currently stands about 62,385.

The loss of workers has left the state scrambling to continue providing the services taxpayers want at a time when state finances are tight.

In the past six months, various agencies have been hiring to offset the attrition brought on by retirements and other reasons.

At the Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice, for example, 24 front-line security workers were hired in May at a salary of about $40,000 each.

Twelve went to the youth prison in Kewanee and 12 went to the agency’s facility in St. Charles.

Even with the additional workers, headcount at the agency remains less than it was in January.

Jennifer Florent, spokeswoman for the Department of Juvenile Justice, said more hires are planned in the coming fiscal year.

“We are planning for another class of 36 Juvenile Justice Specialists in late summer-early fall,” she noted in an email.

The agency also plans to hire additional specialists to work with troubled youth as they move out of the prisons and back to their communities.

The hiring comes a year after Gov. Pat Quinn moved to close the youth prisons in Murphysboro and Joliet.

The closures affected 293 employees. About 130 of those workers transferred to other juvenile facilities. Nearly 150 of them went to work within the adult prison system.

Five of the workers opted to retire.

Similarly, the Illinois Department of Corrections has been hiring guards in an attempt to keep pace with attrition.

On Friday, nearly 120 cadets graduated from a training session and will be sent to work as correctional officers at facilities throughout the state.

The agency has been hovering at about 10,900 employees since January.

Meanwhile, Blair said there may be another explanation for last year’s numbers: The graying of the baby boom generation.

“The number of retirements are still heavier than it was before this mess, but it also could be just a demographic thing,” Blair said.

Because more baby boomers are getting close to ending their careers, he said, he expects the annual total of retirements to hover around 3,000 for the time being.

“It’s probably the new normal,” Blair said.

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