Analysis: Miss. gov't workers' benefits weakening

By Emily Wagster Pettus/The Associated Press

Mississippi state employees aren’t likely to become the next Donald Trump. But plenty of people like government jobs because of the predictable hours, decent health insurance and attractive retirement plan.

Because of changes in recent years, being a civil servant in Mississippi is not as good a deal as it used to be.

Republican Gov. Haley Barbour, a bipartisan majority of lawmakers and nonpartisan governing boards have changed some workers’ insurance coverage and reconfigured retirement benefits. The results? Smaller paychecks when raises were scarce, and, for future public employees, the prospect of working longer before collecting a pension.

The changes are largely a response to the shaky economy, and private sector employees are seeing similar cuts in benefits.

The level of health insurance coverage varies depending on when an employee started in Mississippi government. The plan covers about 200,000 people — workers for state agencies, school districts, community colleges, universities and libraries, plus their dependents.

Those hired on or before Dec. 31, 2005, are called “legacy” employees, and the state pays 100 percent of their premiums.

Those hired on or after Jan. 1, 2006, are called “horizon” employees. The state pays 100 percent of their premiums for a lesser level of coverage. If they want the same coverage as “legacy” employees, they’ve been paying $18 a month.

Earlier this year, Barbour signed a bill that could make health insurance more expensive for state workers. A governing board for the insurance plan will meet May 26 to discuss potential changes.

Currently, the health insurance plan has a $500 annual deductible. Lawmakers say to keep the plan financially stable, the deductible could increase dramatically — perhaps to $1,000 or $1,800 a year.

Employees might get an option of making a monthly payment to “buy down” the deductible. That is, their deductible would be higher than $500 but less than, say, $1,800. The amounts of the new deductible and the monthly “buy down” are undecided.

“We’ve just got to keep the plan healthy as much as we can,” said Senate Insurance Committee Chairman Eugene “Buck” Clarke, R-Hollandale.

Starting next year, people who become state employees will have to work longer before collecting pensions. Under current law, retirement is possible after 25 years’ service. Because of a bill Barbour signed this year, anyone hired on or after July 1, 2011, must work 30 years. Those already on the payroll then will stick with 25.

The Mississippi Economic Council, a state chamber of commerce, lobbied to increase the required years of service to keep experienced teachers in public school classrooms.

“They don’t stop teaching,” said MEC President Blake Wilson. “They go teach across the line, or they go teach at a private school.”

The number of years required for retirement has changed three times since 1987. The current system of “25 and out” has been in place since 1991.

At Barbour’s request, lawmakers voted last month to require public employees to pay 9 percent of their paychecks toward their own retirement, up from the current 7-1/4 percent. Brenda Scott, head of the Mississippi Alliance of State Employees, said the change amounts to a pay cut that makes public service less attractive.

Barbour said the pension change was needed to keep some employees from losing their jobs. Nobody likes to hear, as Trump would say, “You’re fired.”