This post, co-written with Stephanie Bowman, first appeared in The Seattle Times on February 11, 2020.
For the third time in recent years, the Washington Legislature is poised to finally do something about the massive retirement crisis looming in our state, where more than 1 million workers — 38% of all workers — have no access to employer-sponsored savings plans.
By adopting the Secure Choice Retirement Savings Act (HB 2516), the Legislature will be following the lead of Oregon, California and Illinois, and soon Maryland and Connecticut. These other states have created government facilitated, privately administered worker-owned retirement saving plans requiring employers who do not already offer a plan to enroll their workers in the state’s plan. These plans are easy for employees to sign up for, and — most important — go with the employee when they leave the company, a critical feature for younger employees who change jobs every few years.
Support for this common-sense measure comes from diverse groups such as the Washington Hospitality Association, representing restaurants, hotels and other small businesses, labor unions, AARP, the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce and the Washington Roundtable, representing the state’s largest employers. Russell Investments, the state’s biggest financial-services firm, strongly supports the measure, even though their national trade association does not. Small business owners, especially, favor Secure Choice because it enables them for the first time to offer their employees a workplace option for retirement savings at little or no cost.
Opposition comes from lobbyists for insurance, investment and financial-service firms who fear competition from a state facilitated program, even though these companies don’t effectively serve workers without employer-sponsored retirement plans.
Many legislators say they don’t like the requirement that businesses must enroll their workers in the program, yet they ignore the strong business support that exists, the simplicity the plan offers and the opt-out option for workers. They also argue that workers already can access retirement plans through the private marketplace, ignoring the reality that the private market has failed to reach these generally lower-wage workers for decades. Research shows that workers are 15 times more likely to start saving for retirement when they can do so through payroll deduction.
The original idea for Secure Choice was birthed years ago by public-policy advocates associated with the Heritage Foundation on the right and the Brookings Institution on the left. It has garnered strong bipartisan support in other states but not Washington, where the insurance and financial-service lobbyists hold sway.
A recent survey found that 82% of Washingtonians believe elected officials should make it easier for workers to save for retirement. Secure Choice does exactly that.
The Legislature’s choice is simple. It can side with self-interested lobbyists representing powerful insurance and investment companies, thereby maintaining the status quo where workers without a workplace plan are left on their own. Or, it can focus on what’s best for workers and small businesses and adopt Secure Choice, a proven, low-cost and simple solution working exceptionally well in other states. The latter choice is pro-worker, pro-business and pro-economic sustainability and growth.
This all matters because insufficient retirement savings leads to a less dignified retirement and higher costs for state government because of increased social services. Workers retiring into poverty is bad for workers and bad for all of us. Nudging workers to begin saving through a workplace payroll deduction IRA is a practical, effective step toward a brighter retirement.
Let’s hope the Washington Legislature ignores the misleading, disingenuous and false arguments from the opposition and sides with Washington’s one million workers who need to start saving for retirement.