In San Joaquin County Correctional Officers' Association v. County of San Joaquin the Court of Appeal upheld a County’s ability to force employees to pay a portion of cost of living (“COLA”) adjustments to their retirement program. This case involved two laws governing public employee retirement, the County Employees Retirement Law of 1937 (“CERL”) and the Public Employees’ Pension Reform Act of 2013 (“PEPRA”).
Prior to PEPRA’s passage, the default retirement program arrangement was that counties and county employees shared the cost of COLA contributions to retirement programs. However, as an option, CERL permitted counties to pay all of the cost of COLA contributions of its employees if it chose to do so. This was known as a “pickup.” This pick up was a common strategy employed by Counties to provide a benefit that was less expensive than a salary adjustment. In 1975, San Joaquin was one of the counties that agreed to pay the employee share of COLA contributions as part of some of its MOUs.
PEPRA was passed in 2013 to reduce unfunded liabilities in public employee retirement systems. One of PEPRA’s provisions seeks to eliminates the pickups of the employee share of COLA contributions, but does not take effect until 2018.
In 2012, the County negotiated a new MOU with the San Joaquin County Correctional Officers’ Association which eliminated the pickup. The membership voted the MOU down and impasse procedures were engaged. Once impasse was reached, the County unilaterally imposed the elimination of its pick up as part of last best and final offer. The Association challenged the imposition arguing that PEPRA shielded them from such a change until 2018.
Rejecting the Association's challenge, the Court found counties have always had the power to eliminate or reduce pickup under CERL. The CERL permitted the pick up employee costs of COLA contributions, but did not require the pickups nor restrict the employers ability to modify or eliminate them. The court concluded, “In short, the County always has had the power to eliminate the COLA pickup, subject to labor laws, and those laws permitted the county to do so in the event of a bargaining impasse, which occurred. Nothing in PEPRA limited the County’s power in this regard.”
Interestingly, the court cited Marin Assn. of Public Employees v. Marin County Employees’ Retirement Assn. (2016) 2 Cal. App. 5th 674, 681, review granted Nov. 22, 2016, (MAPE) in explaining "the historical backdrop animating recent pension reform legislation in California", but "express[ed] no view" over MAPE's "interpretation of precedent regarding the validity of changes to retirement benefits."