Law & Principles

Senators ban union freeloading on state pension system

March 7, 2022

Ray Carter

Employees of a teachers’ union who do not work for a public school would be banned from receiving state teachers’ retirement benefits tied to their time spent away from the school system, under a bill that has passed the Oklahoma Senate.

“If they’re an employee of the outside organization, they need to go work for that organization and take a leave of absence and not be on the school payroll,” said state Sen. Lonnie Paxton, R-Tuttle.

Senate Bill 1579, by Paxton, states that when a school district employee is granted a leave of absence to serve as an employee of a national, statewide, or school district employee association, the former school-district employee shall not receive pay from the school district or any benefits from the school district.

In addition, the former school employee will not receive any salary-schedule increase in pay based on time spent working for a private entity if the employee later returns to public-school employment. Only actual years of service in public schools would be counted.

Time spent as a union employee would not be used in any calculation of state retirement benefits.

Paxton said some school districts are allowing teachers to leave the district to work for a labor union yet retain the former teacher on the school’s payroll. While the union may reimburse the district for the former employee’s salary, that arrangement can significantly inflate the former school employee’s state retirement benefits without taxpayers receiving any work in return.

That increases the financial obligations of one of the state’s worst-funded retirement systems without taxpayers receiving any offsetting benefit in public-school classrooms.

The Annual Financial Report of the Teachers' Retirement System of Oklahoma, issued on June 30, 2021, showed that the system’s funded status at that time was 71.5 percent, meaning it cannot cover the cost of all benefits owed to teachers. The funded status would have been even lower had it not been for strong stock market returns the preceding year, the report noted. The teachers’ retirement system will not be fully funded for another 17 years, based on current trends.

Paxton noted that Tulsa Public Schools has two individuals listed as school employees who do not work for the school and are instead employees of the Tulsa Classroom Teachers Association. Paxton described the union employees as “two people that are on the school payroll that teach absolutely no classes that are housed in the school that have office space in the school.”

Democrats argued union employees should be allowed to gain state retirement and other benefits despite not working for a public school.

“These local school boards have agreements,” said state Sen. Carri Hicks, D-Oklahoma City. “These local school employees have negotiated and bargained with their local school boards for these agreements, and this is an overreach. This is pre-empting teachers from having a louder voice in advocacy.”

Paxton noted most school districts do have employees who represent teachers in negotiations, but those representatives are not full-time employees of a union and they do work for the school district. He said the arrangements targeted by SB 1579 are not authorized anywhere in law.

“What’s overreach is the fact that this goes on in any schools in the first place because statute nowhere allows it,” Paxton said.

SB 1579 passed the Oklahoma Senate on a 35-9 vote that broke along party lines with Democrats in opposition. The bill now proceeds to the Oklahoma House of Representatives.