"You caused this dilemma, own up to it": Hattiesburg woman in retirement fund fight with school district

"You caused this dilemma, own up to it": Hattiesburg woman in retirement fund fight with school district
Source: WDAM

HATTIESBURG, MS (WDAM) - Frankie Lee "retired" from Pearl River Community College this summer, but she has yet to receive a retirement check from the state system.  Lee said that's due to a mistake the Hattiesburg Public School District made over a decade ago.

Lee spent the last 12 years as a Student Service Specialist at Pearl River Community College, while working part-time with the Hattiesburg Public School District as an Adult Education Instructor.  Lee said she went to the office of the Public Employees' Retirement System of Mississippi, or PERS, in July to start receiving the funds she had signed up for 12 years ago.

"I was told at that time that my account was on hold because Hattiesburg Public School had not paid into my retirement account for 12 years," said Lee.

You see, Lee worked part-time, six hours a week with HPSD.  Based on those hours, she was not told, or thought, she was eligible for PERS. 

"I did not have a clue that Hattiesburg Public Schools was supposed to withhold money for retirement,"  Lee said.  "Would you, working six hours?"

When it comes to coverage, according to the PERS Board Regulations (Chapter 36: Eligibility for Membership in the Public Employees' Retirement System of Mississippi), any member in a covered position can have earnings of the secondary employment reported.

PERS Executive Director, Pat Robertson, sent WDAM this statement in regards to who's responsible for signing members up for the retirement system.

"It is the responsibility of the employer. Authorized agency/district representatives will have a new employee complete a Form 1, Membership Application, and then that representative will submit it to PERS for processing. This is usually done by a human resources representative."

"The  director of Adult Ed did not bring that to my attention. He gave me the paperwork for W-2, to have taxes taken out, but I didn't get paperwork to be signed up for PERS.  So no, I had no indication," Lee said.  "It's not like I worked for them 12 months.  Twelve years this went on and the only thing they told me was, 'we didn't know.' I find that very hard to believe."

Lee said through payroll, it was calculated the Hattiesburg Public School District owed $12,992.27.  Since Lee had been paying into the fund for PRCC, but not the school district, there was also interest accrued for delinquency.

"I'm facing almost nine thousand dollars that I would have to pay into PERS in order to receive a retirement check," Lee said.

To start receiving the retirement funds, that money must be paid to PERS to lift the hold on Lee's account.

"I contacted the superintendent for Hattiesburg Public Schools, he told me he was aware of the situation and that they had no obligation to pay me or help pay these funds," Lee said.  "The answer that they gave me as to why this happened was they didn't know, which is a sorry excuse."

Through an attorney, Lee sent a letter to Dr. Robert Williams, Superintendent of the Hattiesburg Public School District, asking for the district to pay for the interest, or "meet her half way."

In a letter from Dr. Williams, he stated "In accordance with Miss.Code Ann. 25-11-123 (1972, as amended) the Hattiesburg Public School District has remitted its portion of the delinquent employer contribution totaling $12,992.27 to the Public Employees' Retirement System of Mississippi (PERS)."

However, for the close to $9,000 of interest accrued, HPSD has opted out.

"You created this problem for me," Lee said.  "I didn't create this and now you won't take any responsibility."

According to that state law, paying delinquent employee contributions and any accrued interest are the obligation of the employee.  However, the employer may, at its discretion, elect to pay any part or all interest on delinquent employee contributions.

"This is their fault, their mistake and they need to own up to it," Lee said.

In a second letter to the school district from her attorney, Eldon Meeks with The Anderson Law Firm, L.L.C., wrote he "wonders how many employees have they accidentally not made payment to PERS."   Lee thinks this could be the situation for many other people in education who work at area universities and colleges while doing part-time work with the public school district. 

The Hattiesburg Public School District denied a request for an interview on this situation, but sent the following statement to WDAM.

"Hattiesburg Public School District takes seriously its responsibility to protect the privacy rights of its employees. Therefore, the District does not comment on personnel matters. Please refer to Miss. Code Ann. § 25-11-123 (1972, as amended) regarding retirement coverage under the Public Employees' Retirement System of Mississippi (PERS)."

Ms. Lee said her attorney was drafting a third letter to the district, in hopes that a lawsuit will not be necessary.

"You need to check your records," Lee said. "You need to ask questions, had I known this, I would not be in this situation."