Brothers and Sisters, As you may have heard, Congress recently enacted legislation to provide some financial relief to railroaders. In the legislation entitled the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 (ARPA), Congress essentially extended the benefits originally created by the CARES Act. This legislation provides for the following benefits:
A recovery benefit of $600 per two-week unemployment registration period. This extends the benefit that was established through legislation at the end of December and was due to expire March 14, 2021. As a result, employees receiving unemployment benefits will continue to receive an additional $600 per registration period. This benefit ends with registration periods that begin after September 6, 2021.
Extended unemployment benefits for employees who have otherwise exhausted benefits. Now, in combination with previous legislation, an additional 200 days within 20 additional consecutive two-week registration periods are payable. These extended benefits are available for days of unemployment on or after December 28, 2020. No additional days are available for registration periods beginning after September 6, 2021.
Waiver of the seven-day waiting period for unemployment and sickness benefits. This was also extended to September 6, 2021.
In addition, ARPA provides that up to $10,200 in unemployment benefits may be exempt from income tax. This provision is administered by the IRS and they have more information here: New exclusion of up to $10,200 for unemployment benefits. Finally, as you know, the Railroad Retirement Board’s (RRB)’s budget has remained flat for several years now and as a result, agency resources have been limited. ARPA provided a much-needed supplemental appropriation for the agency’s administrative budget. ARPA appropriated the remaining amount needed for the RRB’s multi-year IT modernization plan which will eventually provide more online services to railroaders and their families. In addition, it appropriated $6.8M for agency hiring related to the pandemic for the next two years. The RRB intends to hire staff in field service as well as in the unit at headquarters that handles sickness and unemployment applications. We hope that these additional hires will improve customer service. As with previous legislation, the RRB has updated the information on its website with the details regarding these benefits. You can find the FAQs here: Coronavirus FAQs. Also, with most RRB field offices still closed to the public because of the pandemic, the agency is again reminding customers of the self-service options available to them to help avoid lengthy wait times. I encourage all railroaders to set up a myRRB.gov account on the RRB.gov website to help avoid any possible delays. To establish an account, employees should go to RRB.gov/myRRB and click on the button labeled SIGN IN WITH LOGIN.GOV at the top of the page. This directs them to login.gov where they will be guided through the process of creating an account and verifying their identity — which takes about 20 minutes to complete. Once an employee’s identity is verified, they will be prompted to sign in to their account and then return to myRRB.
The Railroad Retirement Board’s Customer Service Plan promotes the following principles of quality public service: openness, accessibility, accountability, feedback and timeliness standards. An important part of the Customer Service Plan is its pledge to inform beneficiaries about how well the RRB meets those timeliness standards, which detail the number of calendar days within which the agency must decide to pay or deny an application for benefits. The following questions and answers provide information about the RRB’s performance in meeting its standards in the key areas of retirement applications, survivor applications, disability applications and payments, and railroad unemployment and sickness benefit applications and claims during fiscal year 2020 (October 1, 2019 – September 30, 2020). Information on the agency’s overall performance, as measured by the timeliness index developed by the agency, and the RRB’s customer service timeliness goals for fiscal year 2020 are also provided. These goals may be revised annually based on such factors as projected workloads and available resources. 1. How does the RRB measure overall timeliness for customer service? The RRB developed an index to measure the overall timeliness of its customer service in the following benefit areas: retirement applications, survivor applications, disability applications and payments, and railroad unemployment and sickness benefit applications and claims. This composite indicator, based on a weighted average, allows for a more concise and meaningful presentation of the RRB’s customer service efforts in these benefit areas. 2. What was the overall timeliness of the RRB’s customer service in fiscal year 2020? During fiscal year 2020, the overall benefit timeliness index was 99%. This means that the RRB provided benefit services within the Customer Service Plan’s standards 99% of the time. The timeliness index for retirement applications, survivor applications, and disability applications and payments, the processing of which includes considerable manual intervention, was 90.9%. The timeliness index for railroad unemployment and sickness benefit applications and claims, a highly automated process, was 99.7%. 3. What standards did the RRB use in fiscal year 2020 for processing applications for Railroad Retirement annuities, and how well did it meet those standards? In fiscal year 2020, the RRB had two timeliness standards for processing Railroad Retirement annuities. For Railroad Retirement annuity applications filed in advance of an applicant’s eligibility date, the RRB’s standard was that it would make a decision to pay or deny the application within 35 days of the requested annuity beginning date. For applications filed after the eligibility date, the RRB’s standard was that it would make a decision within 60 days of the filing date. The RRB’s timeliness goals in fiscal year 2020 were 94% for both advance filing and non-advance filing applications. Of the cases processed during fiscal year 2020, the RRB made a decision within 35 days of the annuity beginning dates on 96.4% of applicants who filed in advance, with an average processing time for these cases of 13.4 days. Of the cases processed during fiscal year 2020, the RRB made a decision within 60 days of the filing dates on 97.5% of applicants who had not filed in advance, with an average processing time of 17 days. 4. What standards did the RRB use for processing applications for survivor benefits in fiscal year 2020, and how well did it meet those standards? The timeliness standard in fiscal year 2020 within which the RRB would make a decision to pay, deny or transfer the application to the Social Security Administration for a Railroad Retirement survivor annuity applicant not already receiving benefits as a spouse, was within 60 days of the applicant’s annuity beginning date, or the date the application was filed, whichever was later. For an applicant that was already receiving a spouse annuity, the RRB’s standard in fiscal year 2020 was within 30 days of the first notice of the employee’s death. For an applicant who filed for a lump-sum death benefit, the RRB’s standard in fiscal year 2020 was to make a decision to pay or deny the application within 60 days of the date the application was filed. The timeliness goal for fiscal year 2020 was 94% for processing both initial survivor applications and spouse-to-survivor conversions. For processing applications for lump-sum death benefits, the goal was 97%. Of the cases processed during fiscal year 2020, the RRB made a decision within 60 days of the later of the annuity beginning date or the date the application was filed in 95% of the applications for an initial survivor annuity. In cases where the survivor was already receiving a spouse annuity, a decision was made within 30 days of the first notice of the employee’s death in 95.2% of the cases. In addition, a decision was made within 60 days of the date the application was filed in 97.3% of the applications for a lump-sum death benefit. The combined average processing time for all initial survivor applications and spouse-to-survivor conversions was 15.95 days. The average processing time for lump-sum death benefit applications was 11.1 days. 5. What standards did the RRB use for processing applications for disability annuities in fiscal year 2020, and how well did it meet those standards? For applications filed for a disability annuity in fiscal year 2020, the RRB’s standard was to make a decision to pay or deny a benefit within 100 days of the date the application was filed. If it was determined that the applicant was entitled to disability benefits, the applicant would receive his or her first payment within 25 days of the date of the RRB’s decision, or the earliest payment date, whichever was later. The agency’s timeliness goals were 70% and 94%, respectively, for disability decisions and disability payments. During fiscal year 2020, the RRB made a decision on 13.5% of those filing for a disability annuity within 100 days of the date the application was filed. The average processing time was 330.8 days. Of those whose applications for a disability annuity were approved, 88.5% received their first payment within the Customer Service Plan’s time standard. The average processing time was 15.3 days. 6. What were the standards in fiscal year 2020 for the handling of applications and claims for railroad unemployment and sickness benefits, and how well did the RRB meet these standards? For fiscal year 2020, the RRB’s standard for processing an application for unemployment or sickness benefits was that the RRB would release a claim form or a denial letter within 10 days of receiving an application. If an applicant filed a claim for subsequent biweekly unemployment or sickness benefits, the RRB’s standard was to certify a payment or release a denial letter within 10 days of the date the RRB received the claim form. The agency’s goals for processing unemployment and sickness applications in fiscal year 2020 were, respectively, 99.5% and 99.3%. The payment or decision goal for subsequent claims was 98.5%. During fiscal year 2020, 99.3% of unemployment benefit applications and 97.4% of sickness benefit applications processed met the RRB’s standard. Average processing times for unemployment and sickness benefit applications were 1.2 and 3.1 days, respectively. In addition, in fiscal year 2020, 99.9% of subsequent claims processed for unemployment and sickness benefits met the RRB’s standard. The average processing time for claims was 4.5 days. 7. How well did the RRB meet its standards in fiscal year 2020 compared to fiscal year 2019? Fiscal year 2020 performance met or exceeded fiscal year 2019 performance in the areas of retirement benefits, whether filed in advance or not, disability decisions and payments, lump-sum death benefits, and unemployment and sickness benefit claims. Average processing times in fiscal year 2020 equaled or improved fiscal year 2019 processing times in the areas of Railroad Retirement applications, whether filed in advance or not, disability decisions and payments, and sickness applications. For fiscal year 2020, the agency met or exceeded all of the customer service performance goals it had set for the year, except in the areas of unemployment and sickness applications and disability decisions and payments.
Under the Railroad Retirement Act (RRA), a “current connection with the railroad industry” is one of the eligibility requirements for both the occupational disability and supplemental annuities payable by the Railroad Retirement Board (RRB). It is also a factor in determining whether the RRB or the Social Security Administration pays monthly benefits to survivors of a railroad employee.
The following questions and answers describe the current connection requirement and the ways the requirement can be met.
1. How is a current connection determined under the RRA?
To meet the current connection requirement, an employee must generally have been credited with railroad service in at least 12 months of the 30 months immediately preceding the month his or her Railroad Retirement annuity begins. If the employee died before retirement, railroad service in at least 12 months in the 30 months before the month of death will meet the current connection requirement for the purpose of paying survivor benefits.
However, if an employee does not qualify on this basis, but has 12 months of railroad service in an earlier 30-month period, he or she may still meet the current connection requirement. This alternative generally applies if the employee did not have any regular employment outside the railroad industry after the end of the last 30-month period which included 12 months of railroad service, and before the month the annuity begins or the month of death if earlier.
Once a current connection is established at the time the Railroad Retirement annuity begins, an employee never loses it, no matter what kind of work is performed thereafter.
2. Can non-railroad work before retirement break a former railroad employee’s current connection?
Yes. Full or part-time work for a non-railroad employer in the interval between the end of the last 30-month period including 12 months of railroad service and the month an employee’s annuity begins, or the month of death if earlier, can break a current connection, even with minimal earnings.
Self-employment in an unincorporated business will not break a current connection. However, if the business is incorporated the individual is considered to be an employee of the corporation, and such self-employment can break a current connection. All self-employment will be reviewed to determine if it meets the RRA’s standards for maintaining a current connection.
Federal employment with the Department of Transportation, National Transportation Safety Board, Surface Transportation Board, National Mediation Board, Railroad Retirement Board or Transportation Security Administration will not break a current connection. State employment with the Alaska Railroad, as long as that railroad remains an entity of the State of Alaska, will not break a current connection. Also, railroad service in Canada for a Canadian railroad will neither break nor preserve a current connection.
3. Is there an exception to these normal procedures for determining a current connection?
Yes. A current connection can also be “deemed” for purposes of a survivor or supplemental annuity if the employee completed 25 years of railroad service, was involuntarily terminated without fault from his or her last job in the railroad industry, and did not thereafter decline an offer of employment in the same class or craft in the railroad industry regardless of the distance to the new position. (A “deemed” current connection does not satisfy the current connection requirement for an occupational disability.)
If all of these requirements are met, an employee may be considered to have a “deemed” current connection, even if the employee works in regular non-railroad employment after the 30-month period and before retirement or death. This exception to the normal current connection requirement was established by amendments to the RRA and became effective October 1, 1981. It only covers employees still living on that date who left the rail industry on or after October 1, 1975, or who were on leave of absence, on furlough or absent due to injury on October 1, 1975.
4. Would accepting a buy-out affect whether an employee could maintain a current connection under this exception?
Generally, in cases where an employee has no option to remain in the service of his or her railroad employer, the termination of the employment is considered involuntary, regardless of whether or not the employee receives a buy-out.
However, if an employee has the choice of either accepting a position in the same class or craft in the railroad industry or termination with a buy-out, accepting the buy-out is a part of his or her voluntary termination, and the employee would not maintain a current connection under the exception.
5. An employee with 25 years of service is offered a buy-out with the option of either taking payment in a lump sum or of receiving monthly payments until retirement age. Could the method of payment affect the employee’s current connection under the exception?
No. The determining factor for whether the exception applies when a buy-out is paid is whether or not the employee stopped working involuntarily – not the payment option. The employee must always relinquish job rights to accept the buy-out, regardless of whether it is paid in a lump sum or in monthly payments. Neither payment option extends the 30-month period.
An employee considering accepting a buy-out should also be aware that if he or she relinquishes job rights to accept the buy-out, the compensation cannot be used to credit additional service months beyond the month in which the employee severed his or her employment relation, regardless of whether payment is made in a lump sum or on a periodic basis.
6. What if the buy-out agreement allows the employee to retain job rights and receive monthly payments until retirement age?
The RRB considers this type of buy-out to be a dismissal allowance. When a monthly dismissal allowance is paid, the employee retains job rights, at least until the end of the period covered by the dismissal allowance. If the period covered by the dismissal allowance continues up to the beginning date of the railroad retirement annuity, railroad service months would be credited to those months. These railroad service months would provide at least 12 railroad service months in the 30 months immediately before the annuity beginning date and maintain a regular current connection. They will also increase the number of railroad service months used to calculate the Railroad Retirement annuity.
7. Could the exception apply in cases where an employee has 25 years of railroad retirement coverage and a company reorganization results in the employee’s job being placed under social security coverage?
Yes. The RRB has considered the exception applicable in cases where a 25-year employee’s last job in the railroad industry changed from Railroad Retirement coverage to Social Security coverage and the employee had, in effect, no choice available to remain in Railroad-Retirement-covered service. Such 25-year employees have been “deemed” to have a current connection for purposes of receiving supplemental and survivor annuities.
8. Where can a person get more specific information on the current connection requirement?
More information is available on RRB.gov or by contacting an RRB field office. It is important to know that while nearly all of the RRB’s 53 field offices are physically closed to the public until further notice because of the COVID-19 virus outbreak, they remain accessible online and by phone. Customers are encouraged to contact their local office by accessing Field Office Locator at RRB.gov and clicking on Send a Secure Message at the bottom of their local office’s page. Customers who prefer talking to an RRB employee can call the agency’s toll-free number (1-877-772-5772); however, they may experience lengthy wait times due to increased call volume caused by COVID-19-related issues.
The amounts of compensation subject to Railroad Retirement Tier I and Tier II payroll taxes will increase in 2021, while the tax rates on employers and employees will stay the same. In addition, unemployment insurance contribution rates paid by railroad employers will include a surcharge of 2.5 percent, partially reflecting increased unemployment claims due to the pandemic. Tier I and Medicare Tax.–The Railroad Retirement Tier I payroll tax rate on covered rail employers and employees for 2021 remains at 7.65%. The Railroad Retirement Tier I tax rate is the same as the Social Security tax, and for withholding and reporting purposes is divided into 6.20% for retirement and 1.45% for Medicare hospital insurance. The maximum amount of an employee’s earnings subject to the 6.20% rate increases from $137,700 to $142,800 in 2021, with no maximum on earnings subject to the 1.45% Medicare rate. An additional Medicare payroll tax of 0.9% applies to an individual’s income exceeding $200,000, or $250,000 for a married couple filing a joint tax return. While employers will begin withholding the additional Medicare tax as soon as an individual’s wages exceed the $200,000 threshold, the final amount owed or refunded will be calculated as part of the individual’s Federal income tax return. Tier II Tax.–The Railroad Retirement Tier II tax rates in 2021 will remain at 4.9% for employees and 13.1% for employers. The maximum amount of earnings subject to Railroad Retirement Tier II taxes in 2021 will increase from $102,300 to $106,200. Tier II tax rates are based on an average account benefits ratio reflecting railroad retirement fund levels. Depending on this ratio, the Tier II tax rate for employees can be between 0% and 4.9%, while the Tier II rate for employers can range between 8.2% and 22.1%. Unemployment Insurance Contributions.–Employers, but not employees, pay railroad unemployment insurance contributions, which are experience-rated by employer. The Railroad Unemployment Insurance Act also provides for a surcharge in the event the Railroad Unemployment Insurance Account balance falls below an indexed threshold amount. The accrual balance of the Railroad Unemployment Insurance Account was $53.7 million on June 30, 2020. This was below the indexed threshold of $73.7 million, triggering a 2.5% surcharge in 2021. There was no surcharge imposed in 2020, following five consecutive years of a 1.5% surcharge. As a result, the unemployment insurance contribution rates on railroad employers in 2021 will range from the minimum rate of 3.15% to the maximum of 12 percent on monthly compensation up to $1,710, an increase from $1,655 in 2020. In 2021, the minimum rate of 3.15% will apply to about 87% of covered employers, with almost 5% paying the maximum rate of 12%. New employers will pay an unemployment insurance contribution rate of 3.15%, which represents the average rate paid by all employers in the period 2017-2019. Click here to view a pdf of 2021 tax rates.
Private rail pensions may reduce supplemental annuities
Railroad Retirement beneficiaries are reminded that receipt of a private railroad pension may reduce the amount of a supplemental annuity payable by the Railroad Retirement Board (RRB). The following questions and answers provide information on this subject and how 401(k) plans are affected by the Railroad Retirement Act (RRA).
1. What are the eligibility requirements for a supplemental annuity? Monthly supplemental annuities are payable to employee annuitants with 25 or more years of rail service, a “current connection” with the railroad industry, and at least one month of creditable rail service before October 1981. Individuals with 30 years or more of rail service may begin receiving a supplemental annuity at age 60, whereas individuals with 25-29 years of service may do so at age 65. (Disabled annuitants under full retirement age, which is gradually rising to age 67 for those born in 1960 or later, must relinquish employment rights in order for a supplemental annuity to be paid by the RRB.) Monthly supplemental annuity rates vary based on an annuitant’s years of rail service. The maximum monthly supplemental annuity rate is $43. 2. How does the receipt of a private railroad pension affect payment of a supplemental annuity? If a retired employee also receives a private pension funded entirely, or in part, by a railroad employer, the supplemental annuity is permanently reduced by the amount of the monthly pension that is based on the railroad employer’s contributions. However, if the employer reduces the pension for the employee’s entitlement to a supplemental annuity, the amount by which the pension is reduced is restored to the supplemental annuity (but does not raise it over the $43 maximum). There is no reduction for a pension paid by a railroad labor organization. 3. What if an employee elects to receive the pension in a lump-sum payment instead of as a monthly benefit? If a retired employee elects to receive his or her pension in a lump-sum payment instead of as a monthly benefit, the supplemental annuity is reduced in the same way as it would be if the employee was receiving the monthly benefit. (If the lump sum is paid in installments, the installment payments are not considered monthly benefit payments, but part of the single lump-sum payment.) 4. Does the receipt of a 401(k) plan distribution reduce the amount of a supplemental annuity? No. In Legal Opinion L-2014-2, issued January 13, 2014, the RRB’s general counsel determined that 401(k) plans should not be considered supplemental pension plans as defined by the Railroad Retirement Act and, therefore, employee supplemental annuities should not be reduced due to the receipt of 401(k) distributions. 5. Are employee contributions to a 401(k) plan subject to Railroad Retirement Tier I and Tier II payroll taxes? Yes. Federal budget legislation enacted in 1989 and effective January 1, 1990, provided that employee contributions to 401(k) plans are subject to Railroad Retirement payroll taxes and brought the treatment of 401(k) plans under Railroad Retirement law into conformity with the treatment of such plans under Social Security law. Consequently, employee contributions to a 401(k) plan are also treated as creditable compensation for Railroad Retirement benefit purposes. (For example, an employee earning $40,000 a year, but who has 10% of his earnings deferred under a 401(k) plan, would have only $36,000 reported to the IRS as earnings subject to federal income tax. However, the entire $40,000 would be subject to Railroad Retirement payroll taxes and therefore creditable as compensation under the Railroad Retirement Act.) 6. How can a person get more information about how private rail pensions and 401(k) plan payments affect supplemental annuities? More information is available on RRB.gov or by contacting an RRB field office. It is important to know that while nearly all of the RRB’s 53 field offices are physically closed to the public until further notice because of the COVID-19 outbreak, they remain accessible by email and phone. Customers are encouraged to send a secure email to their local office by accessing the Field Office Locator and clicking on the link at the bottom of their local office’s page. Customers who prefer talking to an RRB employee can call the agency’s toll-free number (1-877-772-5772); however, they may experience lengthy wait times due to increased call volume caused by COVID-19 related issues.
Medicare Part B premiums for 2021
The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) has announced that the standard monthly Part B premium will be $148.50 in 2021, an increase of $3.90 from $144.60 in 2020. Some Medicare beneficiaries will pay less than this amount because, by law, Part B premiums for current enrollees cannot increase by more than the amount of the cost-of-living adjustment for Social Security (Railroad Retirement Tier I) benefits. Since the cost-of-living adjustment is 1.3% in 2021, some Medicare beneficiaries will see an increase in their Part B premiums but still pay less than $148.50. The standard premium amount will also apply to new enrollees in the program. However, certain beneficiaries will continue to pay higher premiums based on their modified adjusted gross income. The monthly Part B premiums that include income-related adjustments for 2021 will range from $207.90 to $504.90, depending on the extent to which an individual beneficiary’s modified adjusted gross income exceeds $88,000 (or $176,000 for a married couple). The highest rate applies to beneficiaries whose incomes exceed $500,000 (or $750,000 for a married couple). CMS estimates that about 7% of Medicare beneficiaries pay the larger income-adjusted premiums. Beneficiaries in Medicare Part D prescription drug coverage plans pay premiums that vary from plan to plan. Part D beneficiaries whose modified adjusted gross income exceeds the same income thresholds that apply to Part B premiums also pay a monthly adjustment amount. In 2021, the adjustment amount ranges from $12.30 to $77.10. The Railroad Retirement Board withholds Part B premiums, Part B income-related adjustments and Part D income-related adjustments from benefit payments it processes. The agency can also withhold Part C and D premiums from benefit payments if an individual submits a request to his or her Part C or D insurance plan. The following tables show the income-related Part B premium adjustments for 2021. The Social Security Administration (SSA) is responsible for all income-related monthly adjustment amount determinations. To make the determinations, SSA uses the most recent tax return information available from the Internal Revenue Service. For 2021, that will usually be the beneficiary’s 2019 tax return information. If that information is not available, SSA will use information from the 2018 tax return. Railroad Retirement and Social Security Medicare beneficiaries affected by the 2021 Part B and D income-related premiums will receive a notice from SSA by the end of the year. The notice will include an explanation of the circumstances when a beneficiary may request a new determination. Persons who have questions or would like to request a new determination should contact SSA after receiving their notice. Additional information about Medicare coverage, including specific benefits and deductibles, can be found at www.medicare.gov. # # # 2021 PART B PREMIUMS
The monthly premium rates paid by beneficiaries who are married, but file a separate return from their spouses and who lived with their spouses at some time during the taxable year, are different. Those rates are as follows:
Beneficiaries who file an individual tax return with income:
Beneficiaries who file a joint tax return with income:
Income related monthly adjustment amount
Total monthly Part B premium amount
Less than or equal to $88,000
Less than or equal to $176,000
Greater than $88,000 and less than or equal to $111,000
Greater than $176,000 and less than or equal to $222,000
Greater than $111,000 and less than or equal to $138,000
Greater than $222,000 and less than or equal to $276,000
Greater than $138,000 and less than or equal to $165,000
Greater than $276,000 and less than or equal to $330,000
Greater than $165,000 and less than or equal to $500,000
Greater than $330,000 and less than or equal to $750,000
$500,000 and above
$750,000 and above
The monthly premium rates paid by beneficiaries who are married, but file a separate return from their spouses and who lived with their spouses at some time during the taxable year, are different. Those rates are as follows:
Beneficiaries who are married, but file a separate tax return, with income:
Income-related monthly adjustment amount
Total monthly Part B premium amount
Less than or equal to $88,000
Greater than $88,000 and less than or equal to $412,000
The Office of the Labor Member is pleased to announce that our Pre-Retirement Seminar presentation is now available to view online. We designed this program to help educate those nearing retirement about the benefits available to them, and what they can expect during the application process.
This popular program has become a valuable resource to RRB customers and employees alike. It helps promote a better understanding of our benefit programs among the railroad community, and in turn, improves the effectiveness of our benefit program operations.
While we typically conduct several seminars across the country annually, we were forced to cancel all in-person events this year due to the COVID-19 outbreak. This provided us with the unique opportunity to reimagine our platform capabilities and prioritize creating a web version of the seminar.
To access the video online, visit RRB.gov/PRS and click on View Pre-Retirement Seminar Presentation. Because we cover several aspects of railroad retirement benefits in great detail, the entire presentation is over an hour long. View shorter segments of the program by selecting a seminar topic on the same web page. Available topics include: Retired Employee and Spouse Benefits, Spouse Annuities, Working After Retirement, Survivor Benefits, and Items Affecting All Retirement and Survivor Benefits.
At this time, unemployment and sickness benefits are not covered in the program because of the ongoing uncertainty of additional COVID-19 relief legislation. We recommend visiting RRB.gov/coronavirus for the most up-to-date information.
Railroad Unemployment and Sickness Benefits Will See Slight Decrease in New Sequestration Reduction Rate
Under the Budget Control Act of 2011, and a subsequent sequestration order to implement mandated cuts, railroad unemployment and sickness insurance benefits are reduced by a set percentage that is subject to revision at the beginning of each fiscal year. Starting October 1, 2020, the U.S. Railroad Retirement Board (RRB) will reduce railroad unemployment and sickness insurance benefits by 5.7%, down from the current 5.9% reduction, as required by law. The adjusted reduction amount is based on revised projections of benefit claims and payments under the Railroad Unemployment Insurance Act and will remain in effect through September 30, 2021, the end of the fiscal year. Reductions in future fiscal years, should they occur, will be calculated based on applicable law. The current daily benefit rate for both unemployment and sickness is $80.00. Applying the sequestration rate of 5.7%, the maximum amount payable in a two-week period will be reduced from $800.00 to $754.40. Sickness benefits paid to an employee within six months from the date last worked for a reason other than an on-the-job injury are also subject to regular tier I railroad retirement taxes, resulting in a further reduction of 7.65%. Applying the 5.7% reduction to these sickness benefits will result in a maximum two-week total of $696.69. In fiscal year 2019, the RRB paid about $13 billion in retirement and survivor benefits to about 535,000 beneficiaries, and net unemployment-sickness benefits of about $93.4 million to approximately 23,000 claimants.
The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, or CARES Act, signed into law March 27, boosts unemployment and sickness benefits for railroad workers impacted by the pandemic. Under the CARES Act, the 1-week waiting period required before railroad workers can receive unemployment or sickness benefits is temporarily eliminated. This applies to an employee’s first two-week registration period for a period of continuing sickness or unemployment beginning after the effective date of the law and ending on or before December 31, 2020. In addition, the amount of the unemployment benefit is increased by $1,200 per 2-week period. This is in addition to the current biweekly maximum of $733.98 received by most claimants. This increased amount applies to any two-week registration periods beginning on or after April 1, 2020, through July 31, 2020. The CARES Act includes a separate appropriation of $425 million to pay for this added “recovery benefit,” with an additional $50 million provided to cover the cost of eliminating the waiting period. If these funds are exhausted, the new provisions will no longer apply. The CARES Act also authorizes payment of extended unemployment benefits to rail workers who received unemployment benefits from July 1, 2019, to June 30, 2020. Under the legislation, railroad workers with fewer than 10 years of service may be eligible for up to 65 days of extended benefits within seven consecutive two-week registration periods. Workers with 10 or more years of railroad service who were previously eligible for up to 65 days in extended benefits may now receive benefits for up to 130 days within 13 consecutive two-week registration periods. Since RRB offices are currently closed to the public due to the COVID-19 pandemic, railroad employees are encouraged to file for unemployment benefits online by establishing an account through myRRB at RRB.gov. Employees are encouraged to use a computer rather than a smartphone or tablet due to RRB IT system limitations. Otherwise, applications and claims for benefits will need to be submitted by regular mail. Applications for sickness benefits must be submitted to the agency by mail, or by fax at 312-751-7185. Subsequent claims may be completed online by those with myRRB accounts. The RRB will also pay sickness benefits and, in some cases, unemployment benefits, to rail workers who have tested positive for COVID-19 or who are subject to a quarantine order. Further guidance on these types of situations is available at RRB.gov/Benefits/Coronavirus.
The purpose of this notice is to update you on how COVID-19 is impacting operations at the Railroad Retirement Board (RRB). Be assured, while it is not business as usual, the agency remains open for business. Listed below are some of the more notable changes. Last week, my office sent a press release to rail labor on some of these topics. Hopefully this message will include more detailed information for you and your members.
Field Service Operations:
Last week, my office sent a press release to rail labor advising that field offices are closed to the public. Whenever possible, agency personnel, including field personnel, are working from home. Unfortunately, we expect delays with processing incoming work because as you know, much of our work is not automated. We receive applications and claims for both unemployment and sickness by mail and by fax. Because of safety concerns surrounding COVID-19, staff is only going into the office or to the post office on Tuesdays and Thursdays.
Because of our concern regarding the delay in processing paper applications and claims, we are encouraging railroaders to set up myRRB.gov accounts on the RRB.gov website. I have attached information about all the services available through that account. Please feel free to share with your memberships. With that account, an employee can file for and submit claims for unemployment. A railroader can also submit sickness claims, though not the initial application. Usually, an initial sickness application is either mailed or faxed in from the employee’s doctor’s office to the agency at (312) 751-7185. If an employee is unable to do that or if delays persist, please contact my office at (312) 751-4905 and my staff will assist you in any way they can.
We have received questions regarding the continuation of retirement and disability benefits. Fortunately, that is overall an automated process and we do not expect any delays in paying those already established benefits. In addition, our actuary has assured us that the rail trust funds are well-positioned to pay all retirement, survivor, unemployment and sickness benefits. We are actively addressing questions regarding benefits payable under the RUIA and special circumstances raised by COVID-19.
Related to legislative changes, there have been congressional proposals to remove sequestration from unemployment and sickness benefits; waive the statutory 7-day waiting period for unemployment and sickness benefits; increase the amount of unemployment benefits; and extend the duration of unemployment benefits. There have also been proposals to increase the RRB’s administrative budget in order to account for increased costs related to COVID-19. My staff, along with the agency’s Office of Legislative Affairs and other agency subject matter experts, have worked with congressional staffers as well as your unions to convey the information needed in order for the legislation to move forward.
These are trying times and the agency is doing its best to continue to pay the right people, the right benefits, at the right time. Things are changing quickly and I will update you in the future as the RRB makes adjustments. In the meantime, if you have any questions or problems, I and my staff are always available to assist.
The amounts of compensation subject to Railroad Retirement Tier I and Tier II payroll taxes will increase in 2020, while the tax rates on employers and employees will stay the same. In addition, unemployment insurance contribution rates paid by railroad employers will not include a surcharge for the first time in five years. Tier I and Medicare Tax — The Railroad Retirement Tier I payroll tax rate on covered rail employers and employees for 2020 remains at 7.65 percent. The Railroad Retirement Tier I tax rate is the same as the Social Security tax, and for withholding and reporting purposes is divided into 6.20 percent for retirement and 1.45 percent for Medicare hospital insurance. The maximum amount of an employee’s earnings subject to the 6.20 percent rate increases from $132,900 to $137,700 in 2020, with no maximum on earnings subject to the 1.45 percent Medicare rate. An additional Medicare payroll tax of 0.9 percent applies to an individual’s income exceeding $200,000, or $250,000 for a married couple filing a joint tax return. While employers will begin withholding the additional Medicare tax as soon as an individual’s wages exceed the $200,000 threshold, the final amount owed or refunded will be calculated as part of the individual’s Federal income tax return. Tier II Tax — The Railroad Retirement Tier II tax rates in 2020 will remain at 4.9 percent for employees and 13.1 percent for employers. The maximum amount of earnings subject to Railroad Retirement Tier II taxes in 2020 will increase from $98,700 to $102,300. Tier II tax rates are based on an average account benefits ratio reflecting Railroad Retirement fund levels. Depending on this ratio, the Tier II tax rate for employees can be between 0 percent and 4.9 percent, while the Tier II rate for employers can range between 8.2 percent and 22.1 percent. Unemployment Insurance Contributions — Employers, but not employees, pay railroad unemployment insurance contributions, which are experience-rated by employer. The Railroad Unemployment Insurance Act also provides for a surcharge in the event the Railroad Unemployment Insurance Account balance falls below an indexed threshold amount. The accrual balance of the Railroad Unemployment Insurance Account was $157.5 million on June 30, 2019. Since the balance was more than the indexed threshold of $152.3 million, there will not be a surcharge added to the basic contribution rates for 2020. Previously, the rates have included a 1.5 percent surcharge every year since 2015. As a result, the unemployment insurance contribution rates on railroad employers in 2020 will range from the minimum rate of 0.65 percent to the maximum of 12 percent on monthly compensation up to $1,655, an increase from $1,605 in 2019. In 2020, the minimum rate of 0.65 percent will apply to about 84 percent of covered employers, with almost 5 percent paying the maximum rate of 12 percent. New employers will pay an unemployment insurance contribution rate of 3.10 percent, which represents the average rate paid by all employers in the period 2016-2018.