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Retired police, firefighters in SC want to come back to work. Here's why many won't

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Police and fire departments across South Carolina are struggling to fill critical jobs that are open because of a state law that makes it harder for retirees to come back to work, S.C. senators were told Thursday.

That law limits the pay of retirees who return to work for state or local agencies to $10,000 a year.

"We have people, right now, who are qualified, who are willing to come back to work," said Jarrod Bruder, head of the S.C. Sheriffs' Association. "But they are sitting at home because they retired and they are subject to a $10,000 salary cap.”

There are roughly 1,200 vacancies at S.C. law enforcement and fire agencies, Bruder told a Senate panel Thursday. In addition, 590 S.C. schools need school resource officers, he said.

"We’re talking almost 2,000 positions ... and we have people sitting at home right now, willing to come back and do that, that are retired, but they are subject to that earnings limitation."

That salary cap is heartburn for retirees and those eligible to retire under a popular state retirement program that ends this summer.

That program — the Teacher and Employee Retention Incentive, or TERI — ends June 30, meaning about 6,630 retirement-aged public-sector employees could walk off the job, according to the S.C. Retirement System.

When TERI ends, those workers can stay on the job. But few will because the state will not allow retirees to collect retirement benefits after they earn $10,000 from their jobs.

State agencies, already struggling to fill vacancies, worry TERI's end could result in a mass exodus of employees.

In December, state Sen. Mike Fanning, D-Fairfield, filed legislation to address the looming exodus of teachers and some school employees, and the staffing shortage that could result.

Under Fanning's first proposal, retired educators and school employees — for example, a principal — could come back to work or stay in their classroom and collect their paychecks while still collecting their monthly retirement pensions. Another proposal would allow retired educators and police officers who are working to be paid more than $10,000.

Next Wednesday, the Senate panel is expected to debate the first proposal but with amendments, including:

  • Allowing about 1,150 teachers, who enrolled in the TERI program before Nov. 1, 2017, to stay on the job without capping their earnings at $10,000
  • Exempting police officers who are enrolled in the Police Officers Retirement System and retired before December 2017 from the earnings cap if they return to work as a school resource officer or an instructor at the state's Criminal Justice Academy
  • Prohibiting retired workers from getting around the earnings cap by working for the state as independent contractors
  • Exempting other educators — principals, guidance counselors, social workers and others — who stay on the job from the earnings cap if the state Education Department says there is a critical need for their specialty

Police officers and firefighters who are part of the state's Police Officers Retirement System do not qualify for the TERI program but still are hit with the $10,000 earnings cap.

Bruder proposed Thursday eliminating that earnings cap for police officers and firefighters who retired after Jan. 2, 2013. (The cap does not apply to law enforcement officers who retired before that date, or after age 57.)

But state Sen. Vincent Sheheen, the Kershaw Democrat who chairs the Senate panel, said he worries about that proposal's fairness.

"There’s some people out there who didn’t retire because they knew (about the salary cap), so they are still working now." Sheheen said. "They probably would have retired between 2013 and 2017 if they thought they could come back to work. What do I tell that person?”

Bruder said he understood the fairness issue. But, he added, eliminating the earnings cap for recent retirees would allow agencies to fill vacancies they currently are struggling to fill.

“When you have low salaries, high demand and you’re getting shot at, or running into burning buildings, it’s not a profession that people are rushing to sign into right now.”

Maayan Schechter: 803-771-8657, @MaayanSchechter