Educators make up an overwhelming majority of retired employees who collect a pension and return to a public sector job, but the number has leveled off in the last four years after a decade of steady increase.

The number of so-called double dippers includes a wide range of employees, from longtime classroom teachers who return as part-time substitutes, to superintendents who trade one school district for another and add six-figure salaries to their pensions.

Double dipping is not prohibited by state law, but still evokes strong criticism.

“I think people who are collecting a big pension and a big salary, I just find that offensive,” House Minority Leader Kenneth Fredette, R-Newport, said recently.

However, some say the belief that the employees are cheating the system is wrong, and that rehiring retirees can make sense because they can provide institutional knowledge, fill hard-to-fill positions and save school districts money.

“This is money these employees earned over many years of service,” said Rob Walker, executive director of the Maine Education Association, adding that the practice can save districts money in part because they don’t need to keep contributing to retirees’ pensions when they return to work.

The largest number of employees who work and collect a pension are employed by a school district or municipality. Approximately 80 percent are in education.

Walker said the majority of those employees return to work part time, many to maintain their health insurance benefits until they are eligible for Medicare. He understands the frustration when people see large salaries on top of large pensions, but said that group is small.

Data provided by the Maine Public Employees Retirement System in response to a Freedom of Access Act request revealed that 2,380 public employees drew both a salary and a pension in 2014. That number has been level for the last four years and represents about 5 percent of all public employees collecting a pension.

Before 2011, however, the total of double dippers increased steadily every year and by 120 percent over a decade, prompting lawmakers to perennially submit at least one bill to curb that rise.

One change, adopted in 2011, capped at 75 percent the posted salary for Mainers who returned to work in public sector jobs. That provision was overturned in 2014, but only for classroom teachers.

Fredette recently submitted an after-deadline bill designed to discourage retirees from returning. It would cap the salary for educators at 90 percent of the posted salary for the first five years and 75 percent after that. It would also bring the limit down from 75 percent to 65 percent for all other employees.

“I think that might have a discouraging effect,” he said.

The enthusiasm for discouraging double dipping, however, seems to have abated.

“I don’t know that it’s been forgotten, but it has been pushed aside by other more pressing topics,” said Sen. Dawn Hill, D-Cape Neddick, the assistant Senate minority leader and former chairwoman of the Appropriations Committee. “For something like this, someone has to be willing to carry the flag. So it may still come up, but I’ve moved on.”

CLOSER LOOK AT THE NUMBERS

Some highlights of an analysis of the data provided to the Maine Sunday Telegram:

The average pension for double dippers in 2014 was $28,832, down from $31,068 in 2011.

 Of these workers, 132 drew more than $50,000 in pension; 240 drew less than $10,000; and 1,292, or 54 percent, less than $30,000.

 The average work earnings for double dippers was $15,443, a decrease from $20,828 in 2011 and well below Maine’s per capita income of about $40,000.

 Nineteen workers made more than $100,000 in salary on top of their pension; 64 made more than $75,000 and 224, or 9 percent, made more than $50,000.

 Eighteen workers made a combined $150,000 in earnings and pension. The highest earner was Gehrig Johnson, superintendent of RSU 79 in Presque Isle, who made $221,400 in salary and pension.

 Forty-seven percent, or 1,128 employees, made less than $5,000 in new earnings, and 1,483 (62 percent) made less than $10,000.

Walker said that’s because most double dippers were working part time, most likely retired educators who returned to work as ed techs or substitute teachers.

 Of the double dippers in 2014, 255 retired and were rehired on the same day – almost always to the same position they previously held.

 A total of 441, or nearly 19 percent, were rehired within a month of retirement, and 1,242, or 52 percent, were rehired within three months.

The data do not indicate the total number of state retirees who have returned to work, since the state does not track retirees who return to work in the private sector.

HOW DOES A PENSION WORK?

Maine’s public pension system works much like Social Security, replacing Social Security benefits for public sector workers.

By comparison, most private companies have replaced pensions with direct contribution plans – such as the 401(k) – that are tied to the performance of the stock market.

Under those plans, workers contribute what they choose, sometimes with an employer match, but the fund fluctuates depending on how it’s invested. Gains go to the worker, but so do losses.

Pensions are classified as a defined benefit, which means the payout is guaranteed, no matter what happens in the market. Any losses are absorbed by the employer. In the case of public employees, that’s the state of Maine – or taxpayers.

That may explain the criticism of double dipping – including from Gov. Paul LePage, who once referred to the practice as “unconscionable” and “absolutely disgusting.”

When the stock market fell drastically during the 2008 recession, pension funds lost money, but the payouts to retirees remained the same.

The economic collapse spurred many states to begin looking at how to stabilize their pension systems in the long term.

While no state outright bans double dipping, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, many have made changes to limit the option.

In 2012, 10 states made major changes to their public retirement plans, including Kansas, Louisiana and Virginia, which all replaced defined benefit plans with cash balance or hybrid plans for new employees.

Maine lawmakers debated a bill in 2013 that would have overhauled the Maine Public Employees Retirement System, or Maine PERS. That bill carried over into the 2014 session but eventually died.

WHO THEY ARE

Supporters of the practice say rehiring people with experience and institutional knowledge has value.

“These are people that get hired back when there is a need,” said Walker, the teachers’ union chief. “We recently had a member in Fort Kent who is a physics teacher. He retired and the district had a difficult time replacing him in that area, so they convinced him to come back part time. I don’t think that’s bad.”

Of the 2,380 public employees who drew both a salary and a pension in 2014, about 250 are state workers representing a variety of agencies.

Chandler Woodcock, a longtime educator, was rehired when LePage appointed him commissioner of the Department of Inland Fisheries & Wildlife. In 2014, Woodcock earned $106,319, plus another $24,734 in pension benefits.

Patrick Fleming, former chief of the Maine State Police, stepped down from that job in May 2011 but went back to work immediately as head of the Gambling Control Board, an agency overseen by the state police. His 2014 salary was $75,390 and he earned a pension of $61,374.

Other notable double dippers include Attorney General Janet Mills, a former lawmaker; Dick Durost, director of the Maine Principals Association and a former educator; Maine State Prison Warden Rodney Bouffard; Barbara Woodlee, former Kennebec Valley Community College president and current chief academic officer for the Maine Community College System; and Portland Assistant Police Chief Vern Malloch, who had previously retired from the department.

While many double dippers retired and were rehired almost immediately, that wasn’t the case for everyone.

Ralph Palmer, a Department of Transportation worker, retired in February 1979. He was rehired more than 26 years later, in May 2005, and still works part time for DOT.

Supporters also say the practice can save money through retirement contributions. When people start collecting a pension, they no longer have that money deducted from their pay every period. That also means the employer match is eliminated, too.

All public employees still draw their pensions, whether or not they return to work.

Sandra Matheson, executive director of Maine PERS, said her staff watches the return-to-work numbers closely but they haven’t been of concern in recent years.

“We haven’t seen anything that has a noticeable cost impact on the system,” she said.

DIPPERS SPEAK OUT

Several retirees who returned to work declined to comment, but some defended the practice.

Patrick O’Neill said that when he turned 62 four years ago, he was very open about his plans to retire and, hopefully, return to his job as superintendent of the school district in Fort Kent.

He even offered to come back part time, to save the district money.

However, once he outed himself as a willing “double dipper,” members of the community complained.

“I got a lot of criticism,” he said. “But I don’t think it was valid criticism.”

About two years later, O’Neill took a job elsewhere. He is now director of the Tri-County Technical Center in Dexter, making a $76,000 salary and about $48,000 through his pension. He said he’ll stay in the job as long as he’s healthy.

Asked why he thought so many people are outraged about double dipping, O’Neill replied, “Ignorance.”

Malloch, Portland’s assistant police chief, is in his early 50s. In 2014, his salary was $92,990 and his pension was $45,700.

His pension operates slightly differently from state employees because Portland is known as a participating local district. That means the retirement guidelines are different: He could retire after 25 years and collect his full pension.

Malloch said he hasn’t faced criticism.

Johnson, the RSU 79 superintendent in Aroostook County, was reluctant to talk about being the highest earner among the double dippers.

“I show up where I show up. I don’t see any point in discussing it further,” he said.

He said he’s retiring for good in June, so this will be his last year of collecting both a public salary and pension.

“At the time this was available as an option to me (2004), the Legislature was encouraging employees to do this,” Johnson said. “It’s funny how the political climate changes.”

CHANGES AHEAD

When Richard Michaud, the city administrator for Saco, retired last year, he was persuaded to stay on in the job despite the protest of some city councilors, who criticized the fact that he would be collecting a pension and a six-figure salary.

Although the number of double dippers has stayed largely steady over the last four years, the number will likely decrease because of changes to the eligible retirement age.

Maine public employees can retire and start earning their pension at age 60 or 62 depending on when they were hired and their level of service. New hires since 2013 must wait until 65 before their pension is fully available.

The age was increased to 65 for new hires to help stabilize the fund going forward.

And Fredette’s bill, if it were to pass, would likely deter some retirees from returning to work.

But Sen. Hill said the practice shouldn’t just be a financial conversation. She said double dipping sometimes keeps younger people from getting good jobs because they’re being filled by older workers.

“I understand that people want to keep working or in some cases need to keep working,” she said, “but we also want young teachers and others to be able to find jobs and not leave the state.”