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Seattle looks at city retirement savings program for workers

Not a retirement savings plan (Image: CHS)

Fresh from being sworn into office, Mayor Tim Burgess unveiled his 2018 budget for the city, including a proposal to establish retirement savings accounts for an estimated 200,000 Seattle workers whose employers don’t provide such benefits. Some Capitol Hill business leaders are lining up to support the plan, arguing that freelancers and the nightlife industry stand to benefit.

Tuesday, the Burgess legislation was sent to the City Council to begin deliberations. “In Seattle, 200,000 workers have no retirement savings plan,” Burgess said. “That’s a recipe for long-term financial instability for those individual workers, their families, and our local economy. We know that people are far more likely to save for retirement if they have an option easily available. That’s exactly what my plan provides.”

The idea, which has been a Burgess pet project, boils down to this: The city would contract a third party administrator to process the payroll of workers within city limits whose employer doesn’t offer any savings program and deduct a small percentage of their pay to personal retirement savings accounts. The amount deducted can be determined by the employee, but the default option is between three and five percent. (Workers could also choose to opt-out of the program at any point.) This account would be portable, and would remain with the employee even if they changed jobs, a boon to freelancers and service industry employees who frequently change jobs.

Additionally, the city would establish a Retirement Savings Plan Board—this board would be appointed by the Mayor and comprised of City officials with relevant expertise, and advocates for employers and worker—which would “screen” a menu of financial products that workers could invest their savings in (though the city would also absolve itself of responsibility for the returns on said investments).

Employees would have to chip in for the service as well: fees to compensate the third-party administrator—as well as a sliver to the City to help cover start-up costs of the program—would be deducted from employee payrolls as well, though Katherine Bush—Mayor Burgess’s communications director—said that this rate will be reduced over time as more and more employees are brought into the system. In contrast, employers would only be responsible for processing workers payroll to the third party administrator.

The impetus for the proposal comes from numbers that show that many Seattle employees are struggling to put away money for retirement. The mayor’s office has cited Pew Charitable Trusts research from 2016 that asserts that 40 percent of Seattle employees don’t have access to retirement savings plans, while black, Latino, and Asian workers are disproportionately without said plans in relation to white workers. The research also showed that 68% of employees of Seattle metro-area small businesses aren’t offered plans.

“It’s a pro-business, pro-economic stability, pro-growth, and pro-worker idea,” Burgess said on Monday during his budget unveiling. “It makes sense, especially for small businesses that, for whatever reason, don’t offer retirement savings options to their workers.”

But that’s just the concept. What’s on paper right now in the city budget is strictly a $200,000 one time allocation for a “market feasibility study and legal analysis” of the proposal. The study will seek to identity a fee rate structure that would make the system sustainable and identify any legal hurdles to establishing such a program and ways to navigate them. As the legislation is written now, the study would have an end-of-2018 due date, with an intended program start date of December 2021. Enrollment would begin January 1, 2019.

Here’s how the mayor’s office describes the program:

All eligible employees would be provided with an IRA that is funded through a payroll deduction set at a default contribution rate at an expected 3 percent to 5 percent of pay. At any time, workers could choose to contribute less, more, or to opt out entirely.  Their retirement savings plans would grow through continued contributions and investment performance. MayorBurgess included $200,000 in his proposed 2018 City budget to fund a market feasibility and legal analysis to determine the specifics for how best to implement the Plan.

Beyond the qualifier of if employees have access to retirement savings plans through their employers or not, the criteria for which employees and employers would be eligible the proposed plan—such as the minimum size of companies required to participate or a minimum number of hours worked by employees— has yet to be established, per a mayoral spokesperson. Those questions will be passed on to the theoretical Retirement Savings Plan Board.

On Capitol Hill, the nightlife and business community is supportive of the proposal, and has been for a long time. Back in 2015, Capitol Hill nightlife and restaurant owner Dave Meinert stood with socialist council member Kshama Sawant (District 3, Capitol Hill) in support of her seven-point plan to support Seattle’s small businesses—a plan which included a “portable retirement account” system. “I’m a big supporter,” Meinert told CHS. “[It] helps smaller businesses who can’t offer a plan to compete with bigger businesses because workers can get the same benefits.”

“Another huge benefit is that in the world of nightlife a lot of people work multiple jobs and there is also a lot of fluidity among jobs,” he added. “The plan is portable.”

Meinert said that the portable retirement account system proposal from 2015 had “broad support from all sides,” and that this plan will get a similar reception.

Director of the Capitol Hill Chamber of Commerce, Sierra Hansen had similar praise for the proposal. “Administering plans like this is pretty challenging for small businesses,” she said. “That the city is stepping up and imitating a program like this to ensure that retirement plans are available to all regardless of size or administrative ability is really great.”

In the Seattle mayoral race, the topic of assisting workers—and specifically freelancers—has frequently come up as well. In the opening weeks of September, mayoral candidates Jenny Durkan and Cary Moon rolled out dueling proposals to boost protections for Seattle workers. days earlier on September 9th, Moon announced a “Freelancer Bill of Rights,” which, if enacted, would prohibit non-compete agreements for freelancers, require payment for freelance work within 30 days of completion, and require that employers provide contracts for work valued above $800 during a four month period. (Durkan has made nods to beefing up protections for freelancers, but has not produced a specific proposal similar to Moon’s.)

Moon told CHS that she is all for Burgess’s proposal. “It’s a really nice first start,” she said. “It’s one of many pieces to help freelancers work better in the city.”

“There are lots of folks who could be nudged into contributing to an IRA (individual retirement savings account) if it were automatically set up for them and it could save them a step it the process,” she added.

As for ensuring that her Freelancer Bill of Rights is enforced—assuming that she is elected and that the council approves the legislation—Moon said that while funding would have to be allocated to the city agency responsible for upholding municipal labor laws to pay for the enforcing the added regulations (likely City’s Office of Labor Standards), she hasn’t decided how to pay for it.

The plan, which the mayor’s office has touted as the first of its kind in United States, is emerging in a potentially hostile political environment on the federal level, however. In 2016, then council member Burgess had joined his counterparts in other major cities to lobby the Department of Labor under the Obama Administration to amend federal law to allow cities and states to implement portable retirement savings accounts. But in early 2017, the Republican-controlled U.S. House of Representatives voted to repeal the rule change, with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce lobbying in support of the effort. A few months later, the U.S. Senate narrowly voted in favor of the repeal.

Burgess isn’t concerned about potential further crackdown on local portable retirement savings accounts initiatives from the federal government. “There is bipartisan support from states and municipalities around the country for this kind of innovative action to improve retirement security for our neighbors,” his spokesperson Bush said.

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3 years ago

What Tim needs to look at is reducing the property tax burden on those who make it to retirement – if you last that long in Seattle…

3 years ago
Reply to  Nope

That seems like a sweet deal for retirees. Lower taxes with full value on resale, awesome. But why would you ever sell? Move out and rent, because of the low taxes. This will reduce the available house inventory, which will increase costs for everyone else, but you’ll still have lower taxes. Good job, a bad situation gets even worse for all. Look to Prop 13 in California and see what happens when one group has lower property taxes than others.

And what about people who aren’t lucky enough to own a house at all? Their taxes will need to cover your lower taxes, and to offset the lost revenue. So cool, higher taxes for everyone else, less affordable housing for all!

3 years ago

Some of the idea seems appealing but here a the question about waste of funds:

“Additionally, the city would establish a Retirement Savings Plan Board—this board would be appointed by the Mayor and comprised of City officials with relevant expertise, and advocates for employers and worker—which would “screen” a menu of financial products that workers could invest their savings in (though the city would also absolve itself of responsibility for the returns on said investments).”

1) Why would a ‘Retirement Savings Plan Board’ need an advocate for employers? It’s the workers’ money.
2) A simple index fund (essentially tied to the whole market) has been shown to be the best performer. And it needs no experts to suggest anything at all.