Governments occasionally offer early retirement incentives (ERIs)1 to employees as a strategy to reduce payroll costs or stimulate short-term turnover among staff. ERIs are temporary, offered during a window that usually covers a period of months. They increase the economic value of the standard retirement benefit.
Historically, ERIs rarely have succeeded, since costs are often greater than initially anticipated by the government offering the incentive, and savings are lower than projected.
GFOA recommends that governments exercise extreme caution if considering ERIs. Governments should take several actions prior to the decision to offer an ERI in terms of (1) goal-setting, (2) cost/benefit analysis, and (3) budgetary analysis. Governments should also develop an implementation plan.
1. Goal-Setting for ERIs. Governments should be explicit in setting documented goals for the ERI. Goals can be financial in nature, such as realizing permanent efficiencies in staffing or achieving budgetary objectives. ERIs can also be designed to achieve human resource goals, such as creating vacancies that allow for additional promotion opportunities and allowing management to bring in new staff. Any ERI goals should not conflict with other retirement plan goals (e.g., features to reduce turnover or increase retention).
An explicit statement of goals is needed to judge the ultimate success of the initiative and to develop performance measures. Further, having a statement of goals promotes transparency. Inappropriate goals such as rewarding a select group of staff should be explicitly rejected. otential conflicts of interest among decision-makers who design an ERI should be monitored closely, since any self-dealing is costly and could harm the long-term credibility of the government entity.
2. Cost/Benefit Analysis. In judging whether an ERI should be offered, governments should assess the potential costs and benefits of ERI proposals, and the cost/benefit analysis should be linked to the goals of the ERI. For example, if a government sets a financial goal of obtaining long-term staffing efficiencies, then an independent cost/benefit analysis should determine whether the ERI will actually bring about such staffing efficiencies.
A cost/benefit analysis should be comprehensive. It should take into account direct and indirect impacts, such as the impact on the government for providing retiree health care and additional contractor costs. In addition, it should take into account the effect upon both the plan sponsor and the pension fund (if the pension fund is a separate organization). Governments should retain an actuary to assist in conducting a cost/benefit analysis.
Material changes to the ERI proposal during the legislative process should trigger adjustments to the cost/benefit
and budgetary analyses.
Regarding financially-driven ERIs, a cost/benefit analysis should compare long-term benefits and costs against the “default” scenario of a hiring freeze. Most financially-driven ERIs project financial benefits based on payroll savings related to staff departures. However, any such savings should be discounted, because a hiring freeze also creates payroll savings (owing to the normal rate of staff departures). Thus, the ERI benefit is limited to the marginal increase in staff departures attributable to the ERI. Governments that attribute all staff departures to an ERI would over-state the ERI benefit, thus distorting the cost/benefit analysis.
Financially-driven ERIs may also obtain savings by replacing highly compensated staff with lower-paid staff. Analysis of such ERIs must take into account the fact that newly hired staff tend to experience faster salary increases than other employees.
If early retirement incentives are offered, they should be offered very infrequently and without a predictable schedule to avoid the expectation that another ERI will be offered. Such an expectation would distort normal employee retirement patterns.
The incremental costs of an ERI should be amortized over a short-term payback period, such as three to five years. This payback period should match the period in which the savings are realized. To calculate the incremental costs of an ERI, governments should conduct an actuarial analysis that discloses the present value of the liabilities associated with an ERI. Governments that have over-funded pension plans should avoid allocating any actuarial surplus to finance the incremental costs of the ERI.
3. Budgetary Considerations. In order to develop accurate budgetary estimates for the ERI, it is necessary to estimate the incremental cost of the ERI, which will vary according to the level of employee participation. Any budgetary analysis should project multiple scenarios for employee participation levels.
A budgetary analysis should be comprehensive. It should take into account direct and indirect impacts, such as the impact on the government for providing retiree health care and additional contractor costs.
Because a collective bargaining agreement may affect potential ERI costs and benefits, it should be reviewed prior to developing budgetary estimates.
4. Implementation Considerations. If implementing an ERI, at a minimum, governments should take into account the following points:
- A communication plan is desirable to help employees understand the ERI in the context of overall retirement planning;
- It may be necessary to gain input from collective bargaining units;
- Governments should consider the impact upon service delivery after employees retire, with identification of critical personnel whose services must be maintained;
- The duration of the window should take into account the ability of retirement staff to manage retirement application workloads, among other factors; and
- Performance measures should be used to ensure ERI goals are met. For financially-driven ERIs, governments should track and report direct and indirect costs and benefits to determine if goals are met, such as for vacancies and contract costs.
A Primer on Early Retirement Incentives, GFOA, 2004.