Today, we bring you the second part of our interview with Sherry Chan Chief Actuary for New York City. Click here for Part I.
This Women’s History Month, we’re proud to highlight Chan’s work as an example of how women continue to contribute. In her position as Actuary, Chan looks after the pension plans that New York City public employees contribute to during their careers and rely on when their working days are over.
Last week, Chan spoke about where her interest in actuarial science comes from, the meaning of being the first woman and person of color to have her job, and what it’s like being a woman pursuing a career in a male-dominated field. This week, Chan talks more about the specific challenges of her job and why pensions must be protected.
National Public Pension Coalition (NPPC): What is your favorite part of your job? Do you have a least favorite part?
Sherry Chan (SC): The favorite part of my job is the breadth of my work. Every day brings something new, something different, and sometimes something more challenging than the previous day’s challenge! Some of my work priorities and projects do not even remotely remind me of what I learned or was exposed to while studying for my profession. That makes me embrace the work even more because I know I am getting opportunities to grow and ultimately become a better Actuary every day.
The least favorite part of my job surrounds the politics involved in moving forward the necessary work to properly care for New York City’s pensions. There are many different stakeholders involved in the City’s public pension work (e.g., union leaders, city officials, elected politicians) and each are advocating on the part of their constituencies, so competing agendas naturally come into play. Finding strategies for all parties to come together is one of the biggest challenges (but admittedly, when successful, the most rewarding part) of my job.
NPPC: Pension plans have been gradually being phased out and replaced with defined-contribution plans in the private sector. Why are public pension systems and benefits so vital for the public sector?
SC: This is an answer I could spend a lot of time on because I would have never assumed the role of Chief Actuary if I did not fervently believe [in] the value of public pensions for not only the public employees who receive them, but the New Yorkers who support them!
First, pension benefits generally compensate for the lower salaries many public employees accept when dedicating their life to public service. Since public pensions are generally defined-benefit plans, they provide steady retirement benefits unlike defined- contribution plans, which can fluctuate based on market performance. The reliable nature of these defined-benefit pension dollars, receiving a fixed amount at retirement, are also steady infusions into local economies. They are public dollars that get recycled back into the economy where pensioners spend their benefits.
Also, defined-benefit plans are especially important to women and Black people, which in NYC these groups are respectively 59% and 29% of the eligible plan participants, compared to respectively 52% and 24% of the general population. They are important to women because of women’s propensity to live longer, their lower salaries on average when compared to men which limits their ability to save for retirement on their own, and their patterns of moving in and out of the workforce due to being first responders for their families when it comes to child care and elder care. As for Black people, recent studies have shown that Black Americans are less prepared for retirement than white Americans due to factors that make saving for retirement more difficult because they have more college debt, lower incomes, less intergenerational wealth, and lower homeownership rates. These are important points to keep in mind as we strive for a more secure retirement for all groups, but especially during Women’s History Month and the recent Black History Month!
For more information on Chan and her work as the New York City Actuary, please visit the New York City Office of the Actuary website.