Minn. Union Official Under Fire Over Pension Flap
The longtime head of Minnesota's school service employees' union is under fire from state officials and the public for what some claim are questionable attempts to boost the size of his pension.
John Allers, the president of the School Service Employees Local 284, sought to return for one day to a janitorial job he had for nine years before taking a 24-year leave of absence in 1970 to work for the union.
Mr. Allers maintained that he wanted to "return to his roots'' before retiring. But officials from the Public Employees Retirement Association--the local-government pension fund from which Mr. Allers is trying to collect--said they believed he was trying to strengthen his claim for an early-retirement incentive that would have increased his benefits by several thousand dollars a year.
The PERA package apparently would be added to the benefits the union head is entitled to through the Service Employees International Union, the national parent organization for Local 284.
The Richfield, Minn., school board this month denied Mr. Allers's request to return to his former job as a janitor in the district, but the controversy over the union president has continued.
And some labor leaders in Minnesota said that the public's negative reaction to what appears to be a unique case could be a setback for other labor unions in a state that prides itself on clean government and honest politics.
Last week, the state attorney general's office, which recommended that the school board turn down the union leader's request for early retirement, was looking into allegations that Mr. Allers wrongly reported his annual salary as $150,000 in order to qualify for higher benefits through PERA.
Mr. Allers's salary, which PERA officials believe to be just over $80,000, probably was bumped to $150,000 by including cashed-out sick leave or other benefits, which are not considered salary for pension purposes, according to Allen Eldridge, the benefits manager for the pension fund.
In a development that could also affect Mr. Allers's pension, state officials recently unearthed information indicating that his extended leave may not have been valid because he told PERA in the early 1970's that he had terminated his employment with the district in order to cash out benefits that he later repaid to the fund.
Mr. Allers is seeking a pension package of roughly $50,000 a year from PERA.
In addition, he is eligible for an estimated $60,000-a-year pension through Local 284's parent group, said Audrey Warren, a pension assistant for the S.E.I.U. She said Mr. Allers may collect benefits from both PERA and the union as long as the total value of the packages does not exceed 100 percent of his most recent annual income.
"We've been trying to get to the bottom of this, but we've had some trouble with the union in terms of them being open and straightforward,'' said Laurie Fiori Hacking, the executive director of PERA.
Mr. Allers has consistently maintained that he has done nothing wrong.
Bruce Grostephan, the lawyer representing the union head, said last week that his client asked to be reinstated as a school janitor for symbolic reasons.
"That's how he started his career, and that's how he wanted to end it,'' Mr. Grostephan said.
Mr. Allers, whose union represents about 8,000 school custodians, cooks, and clerical workers, could not be reached for comment.
Several state officials asserted that Mr. Allers had been dishonest with the district and the pension fund.
"PERA's position is that [Mr. Allers] is not an active employee,'' Mr. Eldridge said. "We do not consider a 24-year leave as a valid leave of absence.''
The pension fund is refusing to process Mr. Allers's application for regular benfits until his office complies with an audit.
Under an obscure state law, Mr. Allers apparently would be eligible for the public-employee pension although he had indefinitely left the district to become a union official.
But in a recent letter from Attorney General Hubert H. Humphrey 3rd to lawyers representing the Richfield board, Mr. Humphrey said Mr. Allers "took pains to preserve his leave status with the Richfield school district while at the same time he was certifying to the PERA that he had 'permanently terminated' his public employment.''
To compound his troubles, several members of Local 284 also have questioned Mr. Allers's leadership.
Although it appears that most in the union support him, some members last month asked the U.S. Labor Department whether it has jurisdiction to investigate the union's business practices.
And Mr. Allers's management has been scrutinized in the local news media. He has been cited, for example, for hiring four members of his family for union positions.