TRS reports lower than usual retirements this year, but whether the pandemic will increase that number might not be known for months

The Texas Teacher Retirement System (TRS) Board of Trustees heard a staff report this week that retirements for this year are still below what they were at this time last year. However, the agency has seen a jump in the number of requests from members wanting to review retirement options—94,412 requests for retirement estimates for the 2020 fiscal year compared to 91,213 in the 2019 fiscal year. This breaks down to nearly 400 requests for retirement estimates per week. 

Given the impact of the COVID-19 crisis, many had expected the number of retirements to go up significantly this year, and they still could. Chief Benefits Officer Barbie Pearson clarified that when considering the discrepancy between the low number of retirements and the high number of retirement estimate requests, it is important to keep in mind that there can be a two to twelve month lag in reporting from when an employee leaves the classroom to when the employee is officially counted as retired by TRS. The timeline is determined by when the employee submits their final paperwork and receives their first annuity payment. Teachers leaving or retiring from the classroom now may not be added to the TRS retirements payroll data for months. 

Summer and Fall have traditionally been the busiest seasons for processing retirements at TRS. This year, Benefit Counselors have been feeling the pressure from increased call volume and short staffing. According to the data presented by the TRS Benefits Committee, the department requires 95 counselors on hand to meet their customer service goal of answering 80% of calls within three minutes when call volume is over 40,000 a month. TRS Customer Service Department received over 60,000 calls last month and is currently short 24.5 counselors. As a result, calls are only answered within three minutes 46% of the time with some members experiencing call wait times over 30 minutes. Fortunately, many members have been able to utilize the call back feature making the long wait to talk with a counselor less inconvenient. Ms. Pearson explained that these are hard positions to fill and keep filled. They require specialized training and finding the right people who want to be on the phone all day. These positions can be stressful, and they lose many counselors to other departments within TRS. All counselors that are on staff are currently working mandatory overtime in order to make sure members are being served as quickly as possible. According to Ms. Pearson, there is some relief in sight. They have 10 counselors in training now and will be filling another 15 positions in November, with an additional round of hiring planned for December. The department is also working with an outside agency to get 30 more people trained to handle overflow calls, but for now patience seems to be the mantra.