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What they get...

September 11, 2009

. . . that most people don't. Here are six ways government workers in Illinois get sweeter retirement deals than most taxpayers:

1. Guaranteed pension payments until death

* All government workers -- from teachers to garbage collectors -- get a "defined-benefit" pension. That means they'll get monthly checks until they die -- most don't get Social Security, though.

* Most employers have abolished pension plans, leaving people to save on their own and rely on Social Security, whose payments aren't guaranteed.

2. Pensions that start at age 50

* City of Chicago and Cook County workers can retire at 50 and begin collecting monthly pension checks.

* Private companies don't offer that benefit. And you have to wait until you're at least 65 to collect Social Security, though if you're willing to take less money, you can start getting Social Security at 62.

3. A pension that nearly equals your salary

* Government workers can get pension checks equal to at least 75 percent of their final average salary -- or, in the case of state legislators, as much as 85 percent of their last day's pay.

* For most of us to get that much money in retirement, we'd need to save and invest well. Most Americans have watched their retirement savings plummet during the recession. And Social Security will give you much less than half of your salary.

4. Use multiple jobs to build a bigger pension

* Under Illinois pension laws, government employees get bigger pensions by combining years of service earned among 17 different retirement plans that cover virtually all governmental agencies. Some government retirees have combined years of service in four separate pension plans -- such as Chicago teachers, Cook County, City Hall and the State of Illinois -- to get one bigger pension that's then split among the four pension plans. This system includes most state and local governmental pension plans in Illinois. Notable exceptions: those of the CTA and the Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority.

5. A 3 percent raise each year

* All Illinois government pensions automatically go up by 3 percent each year -- a cost-of-living increase, though those increases typically don't start until age 60. These automatic raises ensure that government retirees eventually will have pensions that are greater than their final salaries.

* It's rare for private pension plans to provide automatic raises. Social Security payments began automatically going up each year in 1975, but that's based on the actual cost of living, which has usually been less than 3 percent. And those automatic increases now face the possibility of being suspended for two years.

6. Death benefits for a spouse

* These government pensions provide widows and widowers with death benefits ranging from 50 percent to 85 percent of the pension provided to the deceased retiree.

* If you're covered by one of the few remaining private pension plans, your spouse can expect a similar benefit. Otherwise, your widow or widower will get just a fraction of your Social Security payment.