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Small firms could ‘opt in’ to proposed state retirement savings plan

The owners of Little Bird Kitchen in Plainview say having access to the program would help them attract and retain workers.

Corey and Sara Meyer, owners of Little Bird

Corey and Sara Meyer, owners of Little Bird Kitchen, with a variety of their company's products at their headquarters in Plainview on Feb. 26, 2018. Photo Credit: Barry Sloan

A small food company in Plainview is hoping New York State will provide its employees with something it cannot yet afford to give them: a retirement savings plan.

Corey and Sara Meyer, owners of candy and snacks manufacturer Little Bird Kitchen, said they support creation of a voluntary employee retirement savings program for companies that don’t currently have one.

The state Secure Choice Savings Program, which Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo wants to include in the 2018-19 state budget, would be established by the state agency that already manages a supplementary retirement plan for state employees, the Deferred Compensation Board.

Private-sector employers could opt into the retirement program, and all of their employees would be enrolled unless they individually opt out, according to legislation from Cuomo’s office.

Workers would save via payroll deductions up to the annual limits set for Roth Individual Retirement Accounts: For 2018, they are $5,500 for workers under 50, and $6,500 for those 50 and over. Single filers with income of $135,000 or more, and joint filers earning $199,000 or more, are not eligible.

Employers would not be allowed to match employee contributions, according to the legislation; their only cost would be the administrative cost of setting up payroll deductions.

“Our employees are like family, and we want to be able to do things for them, to help them,” said Sara Meyer, whose experiment in candying jalapeños led to Little Bird’s opening in 2013. The company now sells about $250,000 worth of chocolates, nuts and syrups per year — all containing spicy jalapeño powder.

Besides the Meyers, Little Bird has three full-time and two part-time employees. A state-organized retirement program “would allow our employees to put something aside for their future,” Sara Meyer said.

It’s unclear whether the program will be included in the state budget now being negotiated in Albany. Bills establishing retirement savings accounts for private-sector workers were first introduced in the State Legislature in 2015 but so far haven’t made it to votes by the full State Assembly and Senate.

Both houses could include the program in their budget negotiating bills, to be released next week, before negotiations with Cuomo intensify ahead of the April 1 deadline.

New York is among 40 states weighing how to respond to the increased number of employees without access to a 401(k), defined benefit pension or other retirement plan at work.

Nine states have adopted savings plans; most are similar to what New York lawmakers are considering, according to a study by the Schwartz Center for Economic Policy Analysis at the New School for Social Research in Manhattan.

The study’s authors, Bridget Fisher and Teresa Ghilarducci, estimated 4.3 million private-sector workers across New York, or 54 percent, do not have a retirement program on the job.

Beth Finkel, director of AARP New York, which lobbies on behalf of people age 50 and older, said, “The average Social Security payment in New York State is $16,000 per year. That’s not going to pay all your bills . . . People need to have other ways to save for retirement.”

She and others said the proposed program would also cover independent contractors and freelancers. It also would follow individuals even if they change employers, and would be managed by a financial services company hired by the state and paid by fees collected from participating workers.

“If we don’t empower people to save on their own, they will fall into poverty in their old age and become dependent on the state,” Finkel said.

Still, a state-organized employee retirement program is opposed by the National Federation of Independent Business, which represents more than 10,000 small businesses statewide, including 2,000 on Long Island.

NFIB state director Mike Durant said the program could “result in significant long-term state expenses” when New York faces a budget deficit. He also said there is no guarantee that workers will not opt out, or that the program will pass muster with the federal government.

In July, the federal Treasury Department ended its myRA savings program because too few people had signed up since it was launched in 2014. Only 30,000 accounts were opened, with a median balance of $500 for 20,000 accounts and zero balance for the remaining accounts, according to the department.

Last year, Congress also rescinded changes to federal pension rules made by the Obama administration that encouraged state and local governments to offer retirement plans to private-sector workers.

Locally, Kevin Law, president of the Long Island Association business group, said he doubted business owners would object to the proposed retirement program because it’s voluntary. “The governor came up with a creative plan to address a serious issue for employees without imposing a new mandate on employers,” he said.

More than seven in 10 businesses that don’t offer an employee retirement plan would participate in a state-organized plan, according to a statewide survey in November-December of 200 business owners conducted by AARP.

Corey Meyer, co-owner of Little Bird Kitchen, took the poll. He, like two-thirds of the respondents, said the proposed retirement program could help recruit and retain employees.

“As our company grows, this will make it easier to hire employees; it’s a selling point,” he said.

Little Bird operations manager Francesco DiFiore estimated he could put 2 percent to 3 percent of his weekly pay into a retirement account. The 26-year-old resident of Franklin Square has worked at three or four companies since leaving school, including eyeglass manufacturer Luxottica.

“I had the option of a retirement plan at Luxottica, but I wasn’t focused on it,” DiFiore said. “Now I have more experience, and I know that I should be saving for my retirement.”

AT A GLANCE

WHAT: Proposed Secure Choice Savings Plan

WHO’S ELIGIBLE: Private-sector employers who don’t offer workers a retirement plan; independent contractors and freelancers

ENROLLMENT: Employers “opt in” to the voluntary program; their employees are automatically enrolled unless they individually opt out.

SAVINGS MECHANISM: Payroll deductions up to the annual contribution limits for Roth IRAs.

INVESTMENTS: Options depending on employees’ risk tolerance.

EMPLOYER MATCH: Prohibited.

ADMINISTRATIVCE FEES: Not more than 0.75 percent of total balance.

SOURCE: Proposed 2018-19 state budget legislation.

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