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Public Servants living long and putting death benefit account into surplus - Ottawa Citizen

Kathryn May, Ottawa Citizen February 19, 2016

Shannon Bittman, VP of the Professional Institute of the Public Service is concerned about the surplus in the death benefit.
Canada’s public servants are living so long their death-benefits account has a $2.6-billion surplus.

That has some worried that the federal government could use the overage to offset its mounting deficit. The latest actuarial report by the Office of the Chief Actuary into the 60-year-old plan showed had a $2.6-billion surplus after setting aside $642 million in death benefits obligations for 2014. The plan has been running surpluses for years and the report estimates it will hit $4.3-billion by 2039.

The premiums and interest are not set aside but instead go into the consolidated revenue account, from which the government also pays all benefits.

That’s one reason why the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada, which represents professionals from federal engineers to scientists, has long argued the fund should be transferred from the consolidated revenue account into a segregated fund.

PIPSC Vice-President Shannon Bittman said, in a report, that federal unions should “keep close tabs” on the fund to ensure the “government doesn’t amend the legislation” to allow them to claim the surplus.

“It’s always been a concern that the government would see that surplus and view it as a source of revenue, “ Bittman said in an interview, just as the Chrétien government did when it claimed the $30-billion surplus in the pension fund 15 years ago.

The legislation governing the death benefit account does not describe what to do with a surplus. Robyn Benson, president of the Public Service Alliance of Canada, said the government should work with unions and retirees before taking any action on the surplus. The account is almost entirely funded by employees and pensioners.

The benefit, which is like life insurance, is compulsory for public servants in the pension plan but they can opt out after they retire. 

Public servants pay about 15 cents a month per $1,000 coverage in annual premiums and beneficiaries are entitled to two times their salaries until they hit age 65. That means someone earning a $100,000 salary can leave a beneficiary a $200,000 payment upon death, if it is before age 65.

The older public servants are when they die, however, the smaller the benefit. After 65, the payment is reduced 10 per cent a year until the age 75 when the payment falls to a flat $10,000.

The death benefit is paid over and above survivors’ pensions to which families of public servants are also entitled.

Full death benefits are rarely paid out because most employees and retirees live beyond age 65 and a growing number are living beyond age 75.

The Public Service Alliance of Canada says some death payments are never collected. A beneficiary isn’t named or the beneficiary doesn’t know and doesn’t apply for it.

The actuarial report shows that benefits paid out every year are less than the combined interest earned and premiums paid – the lion’s share coming from employees. In fact, the interest is often enough to cover the plan’s expenses.

In other words, many argue public servants are paying too much for the benefit and the premiums they contribute aren’t necessary.

“As far as we are concerned we are over-funding it,” said Bittman. “The longevity of public servants is increasing and they are paying for benefits they will never access if they die after age 75.” “Given how big the surplus is and most people aren’t dying before age 75 then the $10,000 payments to estates isn’t going deplete that fund.”

The plan was originally designed as insurance to give higher payments to public servants who die young and have fewer savings and lower payments to older workers for funeral expenses.

The unions long argued the surplus could be reduced by improving benefits. One option is doubling the current minimum payment upon death from $10,000 to $20,000, which is closer to today’s funeral costs.

Bittman said PIPSC normally doesn’t support contribution holidays but she said the plan has had such a large surplus for so long that a contribution holiday may make sense. She noted the Conservatives jacked up the cost of public servants pensions by making them pay more and work longer for the same benefits so a contribution holiday on death benefits could offset that.

For years, the government and unions were content to leave the surplus as a large age discrimination lawsuit against the plan worked its way through the courts that could have cost more than $2 billion to settle.

The plan was thrown into the spotlight when two widows led a class-action suit, arguing that reduced death benefits for surviving spouses of public servants and military personnel based on the age of the deceased violated Charter rights. The case made it to the Supreme Court where it was rejected in 2011.

“The court case was a good argument back then to build the surplus in case they needed the money but that argument no longer holds true,” said Bittman.

The last time steps were taken to reduce the surplus was in 1998. That’s when premiums were reduced from 20 cents to today’s 15 cents; the benefit for those over 75 was doubled to $10,000 and the government agreed to defer the 10 per cent reduction until public servants turned 65 rather than at age 60.

In an email, Treasury Board said it has no plans to change the death benefit plan. Any changes would have to be considered by the Public Service Pension Advisory Committee which advises the minister, Scott Brison, on the running of the plan.

But unions have a long memory when it comes to the government taking surpluses. The Chrétien government passed legislation 15 years ago that allowed it to take a $30-billion surplus out of the public service pension plans. The unions jointly fought it that all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada but lost.

In that case, the government won for a variety of reasons, including there was no real cash or assets in the account.

The big difference is that the government historically made higher contribution payments to the pension plan and was on the hook if it ran a deficit. With the death benefits, the employees pay almost all the contributions.

“For those whose alarm bells are not yet ringing this is the same situation that existed in 1999 when the government stole $30 billion of our pension surplus to pay down the deficit,” said Bittman in her report.