For Your Benefit: Road Maps for Retirement

As a baby boomer retirement tsunami looms, University seminars are educating employees about financial and emotional issues they might face.

From her native Mumbai, India, Cassandra Pereira immigrated to New York in 1999 and found a fulfilling job at the CUNY School of Law. For the past 12 years, she has assisted hundreds of faculty members, helping with course materials, class preparation and unexpected student issues.

Now, at 63, Pereira is contemplating her next act: retirement.

To help her start planning, Pereira — along with about 20 other CUNY employees — attended an October daylong pre-retirement seminar in lower Manhattan. Discussed were critical financial issues including pensions, Social Security and Medicare, as well as psychological issues of transition and identity.

“With this information, it’s easier for me to make a decision on when to retire and what I need to do,” Pereira said. “I have two grandchildren in India, so I’m looking forward to seeing them more often.”

“Part of me feels relieved and yet sad while another part of me is anticipating the future and what it may hold.” — Cathy Larsen, an administrative assistant at the CUNY Law School

Others, including Cathy Larsen, 58, an administrative assistant at the CUNY Law School, found the seminar to be informative, but overwhelming. “I have mixed emotions about retirement,” Larsen said. “Part of me feels relieved and yet sad while another part of me is anticipating the future and what it may hold.”

The pre-retirement seminars, led by benefits specialists from the University’s Office of Human Resources Management and scheduled regularly across CUNY campuses, mark a new internal initiative to educate and guide employees through the complex financial and emotional issues surrounding retirement.

Nearly 200 employees attended at least one of four pre-retirement seminars held at Queens, Hunter, Lehman and Brooklyn Colleges in May and June. More than 50 employees attended two additional seminars in October and several more dates are being scheduled for 2013.

In an effort to target employees closer to retirement age, only CUNY employees who are 55 or older with 10 or more years of service received e-mail invitations to attend this year’s planned seminars. Future dates will be open to employees younger than 55, so they can become better educated on the process.

According to CUNY’s Business Analysis and Reporting unit, there are currently 5,041 employees eligible for retirement, or about 25 percent of the University’s more than 20,000 employees.

Nationwide, retirement consultants estimate there are more than 70 million baby boomers expected to leave their jobs in the next decade, whose sheer numbers will transform the entire notion of retirement.

The idea to launch a regular series of pre-retirement seminars at CUNY came about in 2010 after the Early Retirement Incentive program was approved by the Board of Trustees and implemented.

To help employees understand early retirement, CUNY human resources officials organized several informational meetings. After attending those meetings, many employees asked why CUNY had never offered such sessions before.

“There was obviously a need for something consistent to educate employees on retirement planning,” said Leslie E. Williams, University Executive Director of Shared Services. “It became clear that people didn’t know enough. That’s why we’re doing this.”

At the all-day seminar in October, in addition to how to apply for retiree health benefits, topics included financial planning, pension plans, working after retirement, Medicare enrollment, and Social Security.

James Kovack, an IT specialist at Brooklyn College, said the seminar provided a road map for his retirement planning. “I picked up little pieces of information from each speaker,” he said. “And they pointed me in the right direction of where to get more information.”

Williams said a common problem encountered by human resources staff is CUNY employees nearing retirement age who never enrolled in a pension plan. Others procrastinate and don’t start saving money until it’s too late.

Williams hoped the seminars will prompt employees to begin boosting retirement savings in their 50s.

“One of the things that we want people to know is that there’s still time to put money away at age 55,” Williams said. “They can start to put money away in the voluntary plans to help bolster their retirement savings such as the 403B plan and the 457 plan. They can start to do that at age 55 and still have years ahead,” he said.

In addition to the financial questions, the seminars also address the emotional issues that arise in retirement. “For some people, CUNY is their life,” Williams said. “It’s their identity. So when they leave their job, they’re unsure what to do. How do they use their time? Do they volunteer? Do they travel?”

Manendra K. Bhugra, manager of learning and development for Corporate Counseling Associates Inc., said those nearing retirement should prepare a psychological portfolio to consider how their relationships will be affected by the change. New retirees often expressed anxiety about loss of communication with the working world and loss of social interaction, she said. “The first few months after retirement, there is excitement. Then, later, there is a sense that they really have nowhere to go. We try to get people to see that this is a career change. It’s a new beginning.”

Marital relationships are also affected by retirement, Bhugra said. In a 1999 study by the American Psychological Association, newly retired women tended to be more depressed than continuously retired or not-yet-retired women, especially if their husband remained employed. In addition, newly retired men experienced more marital conflict than non-retired men.

“We had a woman tell us that she married her husband for better or for worse, but not for lunch,” Bhugra said. “So, people need to think about these things.”

Linda Sarubbi, University Director of Employee Benefits, said some CUNY employees voiced concerns about being forced into nanny duties. “At some of the seminars, we had ladies speak up that they loved their grandchildren, but they didn’t want to be the chauffeur and the babysitter. And they didn’t know how to say no,” she said.

And many CUNY employees said it was helpful being among others who had the same questions and fears about pre-retirement. “There are so many things you don’t know about Social Security and Medicare,” she said. “When you’re in a group, you don’t feel bad about asking.”

As more seminars are scheduled, Williams hoped that more employees would invest the time to attend, regardless of their age. “It really puts these things together, so you see how they work. That’s critical,” he said. “Once you know what you’re facing, it’s a little bit easier to deal with. It’s hopefully an understanding of what you’re going to get into so the fear of the unknown is eased.”

Pereira, who lives far from her grandchildren, said she was excited about spending more time with loved ones. Aside from longer visits to see 12-year-old Zoe and 10-year-old Gia in India, Pereira said she has many other retirement dreams.

“Plenty,” she said. “If I can only afford it.”