Recruiting and Retaining High-Quality State and Local Workers: Do Pensions Matter?

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Many state and local governments have responded to challenges facing their pension plans by cutting benefits.  Will these cuts make it harder for state and local governments to recruit and retain high-quality workers?  To date, the answer has been difficult to obtain; most micro-level datasets contain information on the existence of pensions but not on pension generosity.  To get around this constraint, this study uses a unique source, the Public Plans Database, to obtain data on the pension generosity of state and local workers’ pensions.  These data are merged with the Current Population Survey to investigate how pension generosity affects the gap between the private sector wage of workers that states and localities recruit from the private sector relative to the workers that they lose to it.  The findings suggest relatively generous pensions help reduce this “quality gap,” making it easier for state and local employers to recruit high-earning workers from the private sector and retain those workers.  The effect is similar regardless of whether employer or employee contributions finance the benefits.  The study suggests states should be cautious as they cut their pension benefits and that a strategy to maintain benefits by shifting some costs onto employees may help maintain states’ ability to recruit and retain high-quality workers.