UI prepares to comply with new law on rehiring retirees

UI prepares to comply with new law on rehiring retirees

URBANA — University of Illinois officials said they do not know yet if fewer retirees will be hired back this coming school year as they prepare to comply with state legislation that attempts to rein in the rehiring of retired employees.

The legislation, known as the State Universities Retirement System (SURS) Return-to-Work Act, takes effect next month. University officials had hoped to delay implementation by a year, but that proposal did not pass the General Assembly before legislators adjourned earlier this summer.

Any university or community college that participates in SURS must reimburse the system for pensions paid to employees rehired after Aug. 13, 2013, if the employee works more than 18 weeks (cumulative) and earns more than 40 percent of his or her highest salary in an academic year, according to the law passed in 2012.

Certain exemptions are allowed, such as retirees whose salaries are paid by federal grants, state grants in which the individual is listed as a principal investigator, or by gift or foundation money.

"I think we will be able to work within the constraints of the requirements to meet our research, academic and instructional needs," UI President Robert Easter said Thursday.

The challenge will be with the transition as highly skilled employees with a long history at the university retire, he said. It sometimes takes a year or two to recruit someone of equal caliber, he said. The policy should allow the university to rehire specific employees on a part-time basis as needed in those cases, he said.

The more significant restrictions target administrative employees, which is where the UI will see fewer rehires, Easter said.

"There will be limits on what we can do," he said.

About 950 to 960 retirees are rehired each year on the UI's three campuses, according to Jami Painter, an assistant vice president of human resources at the UI. That includes hourly or temporary employees working, for example, at sporting events; faculty teaching classes or conducting research; and civil service and academic professionals. In the 2011-2012 academic year, total compensation for the retirees rehired was almost $21.85 million, with $8.8 million coming from state funds and $13 million from nonstate funds such as federal research grants.

Exactly how many retirees will be affected by the restrictions is not yet known. The academic year starts in mid-August.

"Because we're in the process of finding out from departments and colleges who do you need to hire, who are SURS annuitants, we just have no idea about how many they're going to want to bring back especially with the new law and new limitations," Painter said. "We won't know until mid-August what (departments and colleges) have requested and what's been approved," she said.

One thing is clear: If university retirees want to come back part-time to teach a course, finish research or work a few hours a week as an hourly, they should anticipate having to fill out additional paperwork.

Part of the paperwork that departments must complete when rehiring retirees and must submit to campus and university human resources will be a statement of certification. In this document, retirees will have to certify that they are SURS annuitants and include information about their highest annual earnings and any other work they are doing for a SURS-participating employer. Colleges and universities will have to verify a retiree's employment information with SURS and other higher education institutions where he or she may have worked that year.

"That's probably the biggest difficulty we have is the coordination piece," said Maureen Parks, the UI's associate vice president for human resources. SURS, she said, will provide information on its website for employers to verify information but there is no shared or central database that all colleges and universities can access, Parks said.

"That was part of why we wanted that extra year, to build the database, build the coordination," she added.

As required by the legislation, the UI and other SURS-participating employers will have to report regularly throughout the year to SURS about the retirees working for them and provide an annual report as well.

The UI already had in place a policy outlining the approval process for the rehiring of certain categories of retirees, but that policy is being amended to comply with the legislation. A UI Board of Trustees personnel committee reviewed the policy Thursday. The full board will consider the amended policy at its July 25 meeting.

News-Gazette staff writer Julie Wurth contributed to this report.

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