SERS Insights

At PennSERS, We’re Celebrating Our Happy Hundredth!

June 01, 2023 | Joe Torta, Executive Director | Terms & Disclaimers

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This year, 2023, is an especially auspicious time for SERS, as it marks the 100th anniversary of the retirement system’s establishment.

It was on June 27, 1923, that Governor Gifford Pinchot signed into law Act 331 (Public Law 858) creating the Pennsylvania State Employees’ Retirement System (PennSERS).

Since that time, PennSERS board members and staff have worked together – along with our colleagues in the legislature and various administrations – to help ensure the health and stability of the system so that the hundreds of thousands of members and participants we have served over the years could look forward to a financially secure retirement.

It’s been quite a ride.

During the system’s first year, 1,822 members contributed to the plan. Today, we serve nearly 240,000 members, including more than 96,000 employees who contributed to their pension last year and nearly 136,000 retirees and beneficiaries who received a benefit from the system in 2022. We also serve more than 7,000 “inactive” members – former commonwealth employees who are owed a pension but they haven’t yet applied to receive it. 

Overcoming Challenges

At times the challenges have been significant – the Great Depression, World War II, the Energy Crisis of the mid-1970s, the savings and loan meltdown of the late 1980s, the Dot-Com Bubble of the 1990s, the Great Recession of 2008, the COVID-19 pandemic, and, most recently, the stock market decline of 2022. Thankfully, these economic upheavals have been rare anomalies in the history of the system.

Another key challenge PennSERS continues to face is tied to its ability to survive and thrive over many decades. That is the fact that we are what is called a mature pension system. In 2010, as predicted and planned for, the number of PennSERS retirees and beneficiaries receiving benefit payments from the system overtook the number of active members contributing into the system.

This is normal. As a pension plan continues to mature, the amount it pays out in benefits will continue to rise, as is expected for PennSERS over the next 30 years. While this challenge continues to have implications for all aspects of PennSERS’ operations, it is by no means unexpected and is, in fact, common and part of the underlying principles built into the defined benefit plan structure.

Today, despite these challenges, PennSERS remains a strong and viable retirement system.

Continuing to Evolve

Our ability to deal with such challenges has, in many ways, helped prepare us for our continuing evolution as retirement system. When COVID hit, we had to find new and innovative ways to keep the retirement checks coming and provide our members and participants with the services they needed. In the face of shutdowns and public quarantines, we adapted, and found new ways for our staff to deliver counseling and other support services. What we once did only in person we started doing via phone and online communications.

Even today, we are expanding our vision of what is possible. We are in the midst of developing a new strategic plan that looks to make online and electronic services the mainstay of our member support model. A key part of this effort will be reducing paper transactions. We’ll be making our website more robust and customer-friendly, and empowering our members and participants to do much more for themselves through their on-line accounts.

These are truly exciting times! These changes won’t happen overnight. But we are committed, in the months and years ahead, to find ways to serve and assist our members and participants as efficiently and securely as possible.

Continuing Commitment

As we mark our 100th anniversary, we remain committed to the legacy of those who came before us by providing high quality service that continue to meet the needs and expectations of our members and participants. PennSERS’ ultimate goal is to continue making a difference – then, now and tomorrow.

We never lose sight of the fact that, at our very core, it is our members and participants, and the citizens of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania that we serve.  

Joe Torta is Executive Director at SERS.

(Editor’s Note: In the coming months, we will be sharing interviews and insights with a number of prior SERS leaders and staff who helped shape the retirement system’s growth and evolution. Keep checking our website, newsletters and social media for new pieces as they appear.)