Interviews & Profiles

Robert Jackson says ‘Tier 6 sucks.’ Here’s how he’d fix state pensions.

A Q&A with the chair of the state Senate Civil Service and Pensions Committee.

State Sen. Robert Jackson is taking aim at Tier 6 this year.

State Sen. Robert Jackson is taking aim at Tier 6 this year. Office of state Sen. Robert Jackson

State Sen. Robert Jackson in 2022 took over as chair of the Civil Service and Pensions Committee, which monitors the relationship between New York’s state government and its many unionized employees. In his third year at the helm, Jackson is leading the charge in an effort to adjust the pension benefits for more recent governmental hires. In a Q&A with City & State, Jackson outlined his proposed changes to the pension system and laid out his case for attracting and retaining more state government employees.

What are your top priorities as chair of the Civil Service and Pensions Committee this year?

The general priority is to move away from what I’ve been hearing from the membership, which I summarize in a nutshell (is) that Tier 6 sucks. There are six tiers in the system and Tier 6 is the worst. We want to move from Tier 6 to Tier 4 or Tier 3, move away from Tier 6, which is the worst of all of them. That’s what the goal is. You look at the six tiers and Tier 5 is only 5% of the people, maybe a little less. But Tier 6 is over 50% of the people. Because it sucks, we’re trying to move people away from that.

We want to make it so that when people retire they can live off a pension and Social Security and other resources, to enhance their position when they retire from state service when they have 30 years of service at 55 years old, so they can enjoy their retirement.

Also, we’re strengthening and investing in the workforce by making sure that people are going to stay here based on how they’re treated in the workforce, whether or not they have to be forced to work overtime when they don't want to do it. We need to have incentives to recruit more people when we fill vacant positions. We had a job career fair at Bronx Community College in order to try to recruit more people to come into the state service. That’s what we should all do to make sure the state is fulfilling the responsibilities that it has. We need to make sure we’re getting that information out there. Civil service is sending out notices of jobs. New York has jobs waiting to be filled, as long as you have the right qualifications. They eliminated exam fees for civil service exams starting in 2025. Before you had to pay for exams, and now you won’t have to pay.

Is there a pension reform bill drafted? 

I’m working with all the people involved, various unions and others, to come up with a bill by communicating with the executive branch and the governor and leadership of the Senate and Assembly. We understand that many of the people who have been employed since 2012 are in Tier 6. I have maybe eight employees in my shop as state senator and they’re in Tier 6. I hear it from them just like our leaders and other managers hear it from their employees. We need to improve it or move people into other tiers. There’s only one person in charge of all the retirement systems of the state of New York and that’s state Comptroller Tom DiNapoli. Working together, that’s what we’re trying to put forward, in order to improve the longevity of their service so they can retire.

How hard will this be to pass?

I would ideally love to have it done this session, but I’m hoping to organize all the forces and ask for consideration from the executive and Tom DiNapoli. The pension system is almost at 100%, so it’s not a question whether the funds are not there. We’re not talking about immediate funds, we're talking about funds down the road. Right now the state has quite a number of vacancies – 12,000 vacancies. If we fill these vacancies, more people will be able to be in (the) membership of the pension system, which makes it stronger. For every pay period, money is going into a pension. That’s our goal – to try to organize. Let’s see if we can compromise and put forward the best proposals to benefit the people who are retiring from now on and not be afraid to say it. The question is will it be done in the near future? I hope so. We’ll ask if it’s necessary to ask from state Comptroller Tom DiNapoli. He is a fair and honest guy based on everything I know. We’re asking for information about how much is in the pension and what happens if we reduce it to 55 years (old) with 30 or more years of service. We have to ask and be aware to assess those ourselves.

What specifically would you change? 

The reason why is because they have to work longer, until age 62 or 63, and the calculation of what your pension is over the last 10 years. So if you’re working for 10 years, you’re earning a lot more money in the last three years than 10 years. If you have to factor that out over 10 years, you’re diluting the end result of what a person’s pension is going to be. It should be the highest three years, and those are normally the last three years, and for overtime, there’s a fixed amount you can work. Hey, if you’re short-staffed, you want people to work overtime. If you’re short-staffed and you can’t do the work, then allow people who are working overtime to use the money to invest in as pensioners in the system. That’s only right.

Right now the overtime exclusion is in place. But there’s an issue of refining the salary calculation window. The changes are more often generous when based on the last several years of employment. Right now if you’re a new employee, you’re paying 3% to 6% for the lifetime of your employment. If you’re a brand-new employee and you have to pay for the system continuously over the entirety of your employment, that’s not good. When we’re talking about attracting people to state service, we have to look at are you paying them enough money, are the health benefits good, and what type of retirement system you have in place. That’s with people who have the opportunity to look elsewhere and they are determining whether or not they come to work for the state of New York.

Would this be done as part of the state budget? How would pension tier changes be paid for?

I don’t know if it’s going to be part of the state budget, but I would love it to be done outside of the state budget. It has no impact on the state budget, but would have an impact down the road when people are retiring. The impact will be when we are recruiting more people and we’ll live with this as far as increased salaries. The pension fund will be fully funded in my option. If it is fully funded, will it continue to be fully funded as is? I hope the answer is yes.

This is not higher taxes. But if an agency is hiring people and losing them within a short period of years because the salary is not high enough for them based on experience and qualifications, they can find a better job outside the state system. If the Tier 6 does not improve, then people will want to leave. The Tier 6 sucks, health insurance is too much or whatever criteria, that’s what people are looking at.

Reducing from age 63 to age 55 would be an incentive, and the more time you work, the more your pension will be, so give people that 55 and 30 years of service. That means that knowing that someone who is retiring with 25 years and someone retiring with 30 years, the one hiring with 30 years of service will have a higher pension than one with 25 years or 20 years or 10 years of service.

There was a move from investing in 10 years of service to five years of service. That was an incentive to try to hire more people into the system. But before you needed 10 years. If you were working for the state for nine years, and they’re saying it was reduced to five years, you vest in the pension system.

Are you revisiting noncompete agreements after the governor vetoed a ban? Is there any possibility of a compromise there?

Those are discussions that take place between the governor and labor unions. I’m talking about pensions and that’s solely within the jurisdiction of Tom DiNapoli. That’s for negotiations at the table or for both parties to agree to discuss the issue outside of negotiations.

Are you looking at the potential impact of AI on public sector workers?

It may have to do with down the road employees using AI, but that’s not part of negotiations right now. As the governor said, she wants New York to be a premier player in AI, so she’s putting a lot of money in it so the staff of the state system can excel in that area to the benefit of the people of the state and around the country and have a workforce that we can all be proud of, earn an excellent salary and have good pension benefits when we retire.