Early retirement signups for Massachusetts state workers below projections as deadline nears

With a deadline approaching, it appeared that fewer state employees would opt for early retirement than originally projected by Gov. Charlie Baker.

The state Retirement Board reported that 2,870 executive branch workers had applied for the program through the end of Thursday. The application deadline was 5 p.m. Friday, and last-minute signups were expected.

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Baker's administration had originally estimated that about 4,500 workers would accept incentives to take early retirement, trimming the state's payroll and saving more than $170 million to help close a projected budget shortfall in the fiscal year starting July 1.

Officials have said state employee layoffs might be necessary if the goals were not met, but other options could be considered, including the possibility of replacing a smaller percentage of the departing workers. The Legislature has authorized the administration to "backfill" 20 percent of the salaries of early retirees under the program offered to employees who are at least 55 years old and have a minimum 20 years of state government service.

Those eligible can boost their pensions by adding five years to their ages or to their lengths of service.

Baker was holding a regularly scheduled meeting of his cabinet Friday.

Some lawmakers and representatives of state employee unions have expressed concern that the sudden departures of thousands of experienced workers could create a "brain drain" in state government and devastate some key agencies.

Baker said he did not foresee any major problems, noting the state had withstood two other early retirement programs over the last 20 years.

A spokeswoman for the state treasurer's office, which oversees the retirement board, said an official count on the number of applicants might not be available until Monday. She also noted that the actual number of early retirees would almost certainly be lower since applicants have until June 30 to withdraw their applications, and the board could also determine that some who signed up were ineligible.