PSC Director of Pensions and Welfare Fund Benefits Clarissa Gilbert Weiss has educated union members about their health and retirement benefits since 1984. She has helped everyone from new hires mulling which pension system to join, to older members trying to decide if they are ready to retire. Now, Weiss will have the chance to enjoy a pension of her own.
“I love my work but I’m moving into a new life,” Weiss, 64, told Clarion shortly before she retired on January 28.
Weiss’s departure follows a whirlwind final seven months that began in June, when CUNY opted to participate in New York’s Early Retirement Incentive (ERI) for State workers. Weiss estimates she spoke with about 1,200 union members while traveling to almost every CUNY campus this past semester to discuss the ERI. She also held private hour-long meetings at her office with an average of four to five members a day to help them better understand their options.
“She’s been this priceless resource,” Retirees Chapter Chair Jim Perlstein said of Weiss. “If retirement is heaven on Earth, Clarissa has been St. Peter waiting at the pearly gates to review your papers and tell you whether it is a good time to retire.”
Brash, funny and dedicated to CUNY and the people who work for it, Weiss has been a fixture at the PSC since 1978. The daughter of two young Holocaust survivors who settled in Jackson Heights after World War II, Weiss dropped out of college in the mid-’60s to devote more of her time to the anti-war and civil rights movements. “It was exciting to be a part of something so big,” she said. Enrolling at Queens College in the fall of 1969, she worked during the day and attended school at night. Weiss became a student leader at QC and moved on to a national role, as president of the National Student Association, forerunner to today’s United States Student Association (USSA).
Weiss worked for the PSC as a lobbyist and a research associate until 1984, when former President Irwin Polishook tapped her to become the union’s director of pensions and welfare benefits. “I didn’t even know what a pension was,” Weiss recalls. But she quickly mastered the complexities of her new field and became a trusted guide to two generations of CUNY faculty and professional staff.
“I felt she could do the job because she was a dependable administrator and had the intellect to master these various pension systems and [had] a tremendously likeable personality,” Polishook told Clarion. “She thought we were taking a chance on her, but I was convinced she could do the job.”
“Clarissa has a deep commitment to public service and to the idea of a public university,” said PSC President Barbara Bowen, “and that commitment has been clear in her relationships with our members.”
Weiss has watched with alarm over the past quarter century as retirement plans have moved away from a defined-benefit model to one based on defined contributions. While individual faculty and staff can have their own reasons for choosing one system or another, Weiss feels that a society-wide trend away from defined-benefit plans “is all for the worse.” The replacement of traditional pensions with 401(k) plans and similar vehicles creates a system, she says, where each individual is expected to be an expert investor, and where a bursting bubble – like the 2008 market crash – can upend even careful planning.
Weiss said her experience has been that most PSC members give little forethought to retirement. “They are so focused on their area of knowledge, they don’t even think about it,” she says. “Retirement is as much an emotional as a financial issue,” says Weiss. She urges PSC members who might consider retirement five years from now to attend the union’s annual pre-retirement conference, usually held in late spring.
Weiss also encourages adjuncts to enroll in the Teacher Retirement System, the pension system available to them. “It’s crazy not to,” she says: When adjuncts don’t join TRS, they allow CUNY to pocket money that otherwise would have been contributed to their pensions.
Public sector workers and their pensions have been under escalating attack by conservative forces looking to shift the public’s ire over the economy away from Wall Street and onto other working people (see page 10). Weiss said it is wrong for politicians to portray pensions as a “handout,” when in fact they are a form of compensation that employees have earned through their labor over many years.
“People who’ve earned their pensions by performing work for the people of New York City and their children should not have their pensions reduced,” she said. “Scaling back a pension is a cowardly way of dealing with people who are no longer [seen as] useful.”
TIME TO ENJOY
As for her own retirement, Weiss is looking forward to relaxing at her home in Jamaica, Queens (“I’m a putterer,” she says), to time spent with her husband Sam, (“My life partner and my best friend.”), and traveling to Florida to visit her grandson. She is also set on doing needlework, and taking a class in modern Jewish history next fall with Professor Laura Schor at Hunter College. Weiss says she draws inspiration from the example of her father, who enjoyed a rich and creative retirement into his 90s after working from age of 9 to age 71.
“Retirement should be enjoyable,” says Weiss – and she is ready to enjoy her own.