Thousands of NYC school staffers aren’t enrolled in a pension. A new law could change that.

A man wearing a blue suit stands at a podium inside of a church. There are two church officials wearing all white in the background and people sitting in pews in the foreground.
Funeral for Krystyna Naprawa New York City Mayor Eric Adams attends the funeral service for New York City Police Department (NYPD) School Crossing Guard Krystyna Naprawa at Saint Helen's RC Church in Queens on Thursday, October 26, 2023. Naprawa's death helped spark a new wave of activism to pass legislation allowing more city workers to access pensions. Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office (Michael Appleton / Mayoral Photography Office)

A quirk in New York City’s pension system has for years kept tens of thousands of the city’s lowest-paid employees from reaping the benefits of a city-subsidized retirement, according to pension fund and union officials.

New York City’s Board of Education Retirement System, or BERS, which covers school crossing guards, cafeteria workers, aides, parent coordinators, and other non-teaching school staff, stands alone among the city’s five pension funds in not automatically enrolling eligible members in a pension plan.

Many workers don’t know they have the option of signing up for a pension, or simply assume they were automatically enrolled, said Sanford Rich, the executive director of BERS. As a result, roughly 35,000 employees eligible for a pension are not enrolled, according to BERS data.

But new legislation signed over the weekend by Gov. Kathy Hochul is poised to change that system.

The law, sponsored by Queens Assemblywoman Stacy Pfeffer Amato, D-Queens, and Sen. Robert Jackson, D-Manhattan, will make enrollment in the BERS pension system “opt-out,” rather than “opt-in,” for the first time.

“I personally believe this corrects an injustice in the city,” Rich said.

Rich said he’s had to break the news to city workers who retired after decades of service and thought they were on track to receive pension benefits that “‘you never joined, you don’t have a retirement package, and there’s nothing you can do about it.’”

One woman was so distraught that he had to sit with her for hours so she could work up the courage to go home and tell her husband, he said.

But starting July 1 of next year, under the new law, all of the eligible but unenrolled members will be signed up automatically for a pension plan. They’ll have 90 days to opt out. If they hadn’t previously been paying into the pension, they have the option of purchasing previous years of service by paying greater installments.

Officials at DC37 Local 372, the union representing the affected workers, have pushed for years for state legislation to make enrollment in the Board of Education Retirement System automatic and bring it in line with the city’s other pension funds. But previous legislative efforts were met with vetoes from the governor, including one from Hochul in 2022.

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A tragedy this year that sparked a new wave of advocacy may have helped turn the tide.

In October, Krystyna Naprawa, a beloved elementary school crossing guard, was struck and killed by a truck while on the job in Queens. The tragedy drew the attention of officials across the city, including Mayor Eric Adams, who called Naprawa “the best of us,” and delivered a eulogy at her funeral.

After Naprawa’s death, her son Tomasz Naprawa, a Port Authority police officer, went to collect the pension he assumed she’d been paying into, only to discover she wasn’t enrolled.

Tomasz Naprawa said it’s extremely unlikely his mom would have knowingly opted out of a pension, especially since she was planning to retire in her native Poland.

“I was like, ‘Wow, that’s crazy,’” he recalled of the discovery that she wasn’t enrolled. “I honestly thought it was automatic.”

Tomasz Naprawa worked with officials at DC37 to bring renewed attention to the pension loophole and legislation to close it.

At Krystyna Naprawa’s funeral, Adams publicly committed to “sit down with the leaders of the Senate and Assembly to see how we can resolve” the pension issue.

But the battle didn’t end there. According to union officials, Adams administration officials initially objected to the bill on financial grounds. City officials say they’re facing a grim fiscal situation and have enacted cuts across all agencies – cuts DC37 recently filed a lawsuit to try to halt. An Adams spokesperson didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

The city will likely have to chip in between $17 million and $22 million extra a year in employer contributions for the new enrollees, according to an analysis by the chief actuary of the city’s pension funds.

When the legislation stalled in the governor’s office, Tomasz Naprawa and union officials renewed their push. Naprawa penned a Nov. 15 letter to Adams urging him to follow through on his commitment and support the bill.

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The years of advocacy finally paid off last weekend. Adams administration officials rescinded their objection, and Hochul signed the bill on Dec. 8, union officials said.

“This was long overdue,” said DC37 Local 372 President Shaun Francois in a statement. “Persistence” overcame the “resistance,” he added.

The change is too late to benefit Tomasz Naprawa, but he thinks his mom would’ve been happy to know the advocacy she helped inspire will improve the lives of her colleagues.

“Me and my sister are getting none of these benefits … but going forward it’s nice to know if there’s another tragedy five,10,15 years from now that family will reap all the benefits they’re entitled to,” he said. “I think she’s looking down on us and she’s happy.”

Michael Elsen-Rooney is a reporter for Chalkbeat New York, covering NYC public schools. Contact Michael at melsen-rooney@chalkbeat.org.

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