Sacramento County retirees waited months for pension checks to start. That’s now changing.

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Sacramento ranked third in California in most affordable city to retire, behind Bakersfield and Stockton. Retirement in San Francisco or New York will eat up much more of that savings.
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Sacramento ranked third in California in most affordable city to retire, behind Bakersfield and Stockton. Retirement in San Francisco or New York will eat up much more of that savings.

As Suzanne Deloy prepared to retire in March, she recalled the horror stories of fellow Sacramento County employees forced to wait months before they saw their first retirement check come in.

“It was 102 days before she received her check last year,” Deloy said of a co-worker in the Sheriff’s Office, where she has worked the past five years.

For years, months-long waiting periods were the norm. But in the past year, the Sacramento County Employees’ Retirement System has reversed the trend: After hiring more staffers and using performance data to catch applications that might otherwise fall through the cracks, the average processing time is down this year — to 40 days, under SCERS’ target of 45 days.

“Our mission (is) to make sure people have a stable retirement,” Stern said. “That’s the whole purpose of being here, and we needed to get focused to be able to accomplish that.”

Just last year, retirees waited an average of 80 days for their first monthly check, said SCERS CEO Eric Stern. He said delays largely stemmed from the department’s largely manual processing system becoming increasingly overwhelmed by a flood of baby boomers leaving the workforce in the last decade.

“It was taking us three months to get people their first check and I just can’t even imagine how disruptive that is,” he said, “disrupting someone’s ability to pay bills on time when their main income stream is delayed that long.”

SCERS now regularly uses performance data “to assess and track different stops on the assembly line process, holding meetings (and) calling out individual individual applications and questioning the staff why things were getting held up,” Stern said.

This year’s crop of retirees have noticed the quicker turnaround.

Robert Waugh, a welfare fraud investigator who worked for the county just shy of 20 years, had prepared in advance to make sure he had enough funds in case his first check didn’t show up. But it arrived “exactly the day it was supposed to, which was 30 days post-retirement,” he said.

“I have a lot of law enforcement friends and a lot of them had long period of time to wait for a check and they were all shocked when I got mine in 30 days,” said Waugh’s co-worker Steven Roberson, who also retired from the welfare fraud department this year.

From January to June in 2018, 81 percent of new retirees were paid more than 60 days after filing their paperwork. In the same period this year, only 9 percent of new retires had to wait more than 60 days.

In the last fiscal year, 701 new retirees were added to SCERS, part of a steady increase of baby boomers aging out of the workforce. In total, there are about 11,400 county employee retirees, Stern said.

Generally, pension checks are sent to retirees without a problem, similar to payroll, Stern said. It’s the first check that’s complicated, requiring “calculations to be made and checked and double-checked,” he said.

“It doesn’t just go through a machine,” he said.

But in a few years, most of the process will in fact go through a machine — SCERS is in the middle of building an IT system that will automate future application calculations. Stern said the new system is at least a couple years away from deployment.

As for Deloy, she retired at the end of March this year. The county had warned her that her first check could take three months to process, but she got it 40 days later.

“When I got my check I called them up and thanked them and said, ‘Kudos to you guys because you got it together,’ “ she said.

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Alexandra Yoon-Hendricks covers Sacramento County and the cities and suburbs beyond the capital. She’s previously worked at The New York Times and NPR, and is a former Bee intern. She graduated from UC Berkeley, where she was the managing editor of The Daily Californian.
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