A Seminar on the Public Plans Database and Additional Data Needed for Research on Uncovered Workers

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Jean-Pierre Aubry and Laura D. Quinby, Boston College

On January 17, 2019, Center researchers gave a seminar on the Public Plans Database (PPD) to the U.S. Social Security Administration (SSA). The PPD is currently a pension finance database containing information on plan funding, pension fund cash flows, and investments. Additionally, it contains a snapshot of Social Security coverage by plan in the wake of the Great Recession. While it includes only basic data on plan membership and benefits, the Center could expand the database to include data relevant for assessing benefit adequacy under the current Internal Revenue Service (IRS) Safe Harbor Rules – employee tenure and vesting, benefit multipliers, cost-of-living-adjustments, and defined contribution benefits. Additionally, the Center could enhance data on Social Security coverage in public plans by obtaining information from PENDAT (a self-reported survey of major pension plans from 1990-2000) and Form SSA-1945 (from 2005 to the present).

During the seminar, and in subsequent conversations, SSA researchers wondered how many state and local government employees separate from jobs that are not covered by Social Security without ever vesting in a public pension. The answer to this question has implications for the design of IRS Safe Harbor provisions, which regulate the generosity of employer benefits for uncovered workers, and for the Windfall Elimination Provision. Existing research shows that newly hired workers are very likely to separate with insufficient tenure to vest in their pension, a pattern that also seems to have held historically. The researchers conclude that remaining issues in this area are policy, rather than research, questions.