On the Front Lines: Minnesota
The third installment of On the Front Lines brings us to Minnesota.
On the Front Lines: Minnesota
Helping employees stay calm and deliver a positive message to customers is critical as public pension systems cope with the Covid-19 outbreak, said Doug Anderson, executive director of the Minnesota Public Employees Retirement Association (PERA).
“It has never been our goal to get through customer calls as quickly as possible,” Anderson said. “We want to answer questions as quickly as possible, but our staff always wants to take care of the member. They have a role to play in calming people and putting them at ease.”
PERA administers five plans that range greatly in size. The largest, for local government and school district employees, has 150,000 active members, more than 100,000 retirees and $25 billion in assets. Separate plans serve police and firefighters, correctional officers, volunteer firefighters, and elected officials. “In Minnesota, if you're a public servant who is not a teacher and not a state employee, you're probably in one of PERA's plans,” Anderson said. Altogether, PERA represents 2,500 employers and has about 90 employees.
The initial customer response to the Covid-19 outbreak, not surprisingly, was anxiety. The call center quickly found itself fielding questions about whether benefits would be impacted. Although the answer was simple—no, they would not—PERA took pains to provide details.
“We are reminding our members that the statutes don't allow us to reduce their benefits. That's fact No. 1,” Anderson said. A notice on the website underscores the system's stability. It notes, among other things, that “Since its inception in 1931, PERA has never had a deviation from regular monthly benefits to our retirees. Nor has there been a benefit reduction to retiree benefits. The certainty of monthly benefit payments has endured other crises, including wars, major market adjustments, and economic recession.”
Calls coming into to the call center have actually tapered off as PERA proactively published on its website a Covid-19 Q&A and the statement on benefit security and system stability, Anderson noted.
PERA began preparing for Covid-19-related disruptions in February, and by mid-March, 90 percent of its employees were teleworking. “We were pretty fortunate that we made a strong push about a year ago to get telecommuting capabilities into place,” Anderson said, adding that he credits his chief operating officer for having the vision to see that a more mobile workforce could be beneficial.
A handful of employees do need to be in the building—mainly workers who are responsible for handling and opening mail and scanning documents.
By the second full week of remote operations, employees were settling in to the new routine. “A few people were still getting used to the technology, but across the board we had pretty positive reports that employees were able to function well. This was a real credit to the tireless work of our network operations manager and team.”
While it was getting its workforce settled into a new routine, PERA also had to shift from in-person meeting with customers to remote delivery of its services. On March 13, PERA announced that while it was still open for business, all one-on-one counseling appointments would be by phone only. PERA also closed its field offices in Duluth and Mankato, which are used to conduct counseling sessions, to reduce strains on staffing.
Documents and forms can still be deposited in a drop-box in the lobby of the St. Paul office building. And on April 1, PERA unveiled two live educational webinars that explain benefits and services. The webinars, which are offered on a rolling basis, consist of one program tailored to employees who are planning to retire within a year, and one for everyone else.
“The membership overall seems to be pretty understanding of what steps we are taking and they've been relatively calm,” Anderson said.
It's been beneficial that PERA shares an office building in St. Paul with the Minnesota Teachers Retirement Association, the Minnesota State Retirement System, and the Minnesota State Board of Investment, Anderson said. “We do work with the other executive directors, and it's been good to have colleagues to cooperate with,” he explained.
Going into the Covid-19 outbreak, Anderson said, he wasn't completely sure how things would play out if PERA had to invoke its continuity of operations plan, but his team amazed him. “It was impressive to see how quickly we could make it happen,” he said. Anderson said he thinks more frequent testing of the continuity plan may occur in the future, and he believes PERA will be ready to pounce even quicker in a crisis now that it's been through disruptions. He also anticipates that PERA may want to have more people working offsite more regularly so that it becomes second nature.
Above all, he says, he is impressed with the dedication of his team and their ability to pull together in a crisis. “I'm grateful to our staff, and to the leaders who really helped us be prepared for this,” Anderson said. “We have a great COO and a very strong head of continuity operations planning, and they've done their job and done it well.”