State prison workers who spend years working far from dangerous inmates are cashing in on a pension benefit meant for career correction officers by switching jobs shortly before retiring, a FOX Undercover investigation has found.
The practice, known as group jumping, has allowed some long-time administrative or managerial Department of Correction employees to retire earlier and with more money by working in some cases just a year as a correction officer. Twelve months is the minimum amount of time needed to qualify for a pension meant for those who work their entire career in a dangerous job.
Cheryl Nelson spent nearly three decades working as an administrative assistant with the Department of Correction before becoming a correction officer in 2008.
She was unapologetic about her maneuver.
“We're working on a story about people who change jobs to sweeten their pensions and I'm wondering if that's why you became a correction officer,” asked FOX Undercover reporter Mike Beaudet.
“Yes it is,” she replied.
“Do you feel like you're taking advantage of the system?” Beaudet asked.
“Absolutely not. Been in the system for 32 years and I was grossly underpaid for a big portion of that time frame,” Nelson said.
Nelson is now a correction officer at the state prison in Shirley. After working just 12 months as a prison guard, she'll be able to retire as if she spent her entire career as a correction officer.
Correction officers qualify for the pension category known as Group 4, which is for employees who work in hazardous conditions.
“It helps me as a single person to better my retirement. I've got to think about my future,” she said.
“Some people would say what you're doing is gaming the system. You disagree with that?” Beaudet asked.
“Yes I do,” Nelson said.
“Why is that?” Beaudet asked.
“I really don't care to comment any further on the issue,” she said.
“You feel like you haven't gotten your fair share in the Department of Correction?” Beaudet said.
“Yes,” she said.
“I don't think I've taken advantage of anything with the state. Absolutely not,” she said.
Nelson acknowledged that staying as an administrative assistant would have meant she would have had to work 11 more years to qualify for the full pension she is on track to obtain.
Nelson is hardly the only state worker who switched jobs to get a better pension. Records show that since 2005, 14 Department of Correction employees became correction officers at the end of their careers.
Most held the job for only the minimum 12 months before retiring with the enhanced Group 4 pension. Eight people left management jobs, which are not classified as Group 4 positions, to become correction officers.
Mike Widmer, president of the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, said there is only one reason a manager would move to become a correction officer shortly before retiring.
“Probably not a career goal except for the fact that you have an enhanced pension. So that is the one and only reason why somebody would move into a correction officer position at the end of his or her career,” he said.
Widmer said the maneuver is legal “but it’s absolutely wrong. It’s wrong morally and it’s wrong fiscally.”
Gov. Deval Patrick has already proposed what a special commission that studied the retirement system recommended last year: to change the system so that an employee's pension is prorated based on the number of years in each job.
The Legislature failed to act on that recommendation, but Jay Gonzalez, Patrick’s Secretary for Administration and Finance, says it will be part of a comprehensive pension reform plan that will be unveiled early next year.
Gonzalez says the example of Cheryl Nelson shows why the system should be reformed.
“The problem with the existing system… is it incentivizes her to get that unfair benefit. We've got to stop that,” he said.
Group jumping has been going on for years, Widmer said.
“This is a classic Massachusetts problem in which the unions, the public employees, the legislature are all in bed together. And so let's not upset the apple cart,” he said.
The president of the union representing correction officers says it's inappropriate to have public employees changing jobs for the sole purpose of bolstering their pensions.
The Department of Correction would not comment on Cheryl Nelson's case, but a department spokesperson says closing the loophole will make it difficult to recruit managers from within if managers are going to lose their retirement benefits.
"The Massachusetts Department of Correction has concerns when experienced managers revert back to their original positions in order to retain retirement benefits they have earned through a lifetime of experience. It is increasingly difficult for us to attract qualified candidates to accept high level management positions if they are going to lose retirement benefits,” the department’s statement said.
The state Retirement Board, which is overseen by the Treasurer, created the rule in 2004 requiring employees to remain in their Group 4 job for at least 12 months prior to retirement. It created the rule to crack down on people switching jobs in name only.
“The retirement board requires employers and employees to certify that members perform the functions of a position and not merely hold the title. However, the board is limited in its reach, and a more permanent solution will require changing state law,” Board Executive Director Nick Favorito said in a statement.