Worried about retiring? California will help you save money

In California, 61% of private sector workers have no access to a pension or 401(k).
In California, 61% of private sector workers have no access to a pension or 401(k).
(Michael Robinson Chavez / Los Angeles Times)

Are you a worker worried you won’t have enough money to retire?

Are you an employer who doesn’t offer either a pension or a 401(k) to your workers?

If so, CalSavers is aimed at you.

On July 1, California launches an ambitious state-sponsored retirement program for the private sector. All employers with five or more workers will be required to sign on if they don’t offer their employees a way to save and invest for retirement. As many as 300,000 businesses must comply over the next three years.

That will give some 7.5 million workers who currently have no access to a pension, 401(k) or other qualified retirement plan an easy way to deduct savings from their paychecks. And it will bypass often complex and costly set-up procedures as well as the liability that has deterred many businesses from offering investment programs to their employees.


“When it comes to retirement income security, most working Californians are in trouble,” said Nari Rhee, director of the Retirement Security Program at UC Berkeley Labor Center. CalSavers, she said, can help “private sector workers who have fallen through the yawning gaps in the U.S. retirement system.”

In the Golden State, 61% of private sector workers have no access to a pension or 401(k), up from 49% two decades ago, as businesses have cut back on benefits, according to a labor center study. California ranks 45th out of 50 states in the share of workers who have access to a retirement plan.

Social Security, with a current average benefit of $1,461 a month, won’t meet basic needs for many in a state with skyrocketing housing and medical costs.

“People are worried they will have to work until they die,” said Katie Selenski, CalSavers’ executive director. “If our elderly are living in poverty, it is a moral problem, but also a fiscal problem. If they have to rely on public assistance, it drives up taxpayer costs.”

California is the third state to implement a broad state-sponsored system as it grapples with an aging population and a growing wave of baby boomer retirees. These so-called “Secure Choice” programs are up and running in Oregon and Illinois. Other states are working on similar plans.

Here’s how CalSavers works:

What do employers have to do?

Employers of any size can voluntarily sign up on as of July 1. Next year, mandatory compliance kicks in. Employers of fewer than five people are exempt, but all others who have not adopted a private market retirement plan must register and allow CalSavers to enroll their workers.


Employers with more than 100 workers have until June 30, 2020, to comply. Employers with more than 50 employees have until June 30, 2021. Those with five or more employees must enroll by June 30, 2022.

Within 30 days of registering at, employers must provide the program with their employees’ names, Social Security numbers, date of birth and contact information.

“From beginning to end, this process generally takes about 30 minutes; many employers complete it in 15 minutes or less,” according to the CalSavers website.

Then employers must remit employee payroll contributions to CalSavers each pay period.

What does CalSavers offer employers?

Unlike private market retirement plans offered by financial institutions, which can have high fees, CalSavers is free for employers.

And because CalSavers is sponsored by the state, not the employer, the employer is not vulnerable to lawsuits related to the program.


Employers don’t have to worry about choosing mutual funds. CalSavers takes responsibility for that.

“We take care of all the interaction with employees about their accounts,” Selenski said. “We’ve made the employer experience as seamless and simple as possible.”

Unlike a private market plan, employers aren’t allowed to match contributions.

What does CalSavers offer workers?

Once an employer registers with CalSavers, workers are automatically enrolled in a post-tax Roth individual retirement account unless they opt out. A pre-tax IRA will be available later this year.

Workers can save up to the federal annual maximum of $6,000 for those under age 50 and $7,000 for those 50 or older — the same as for any IRA.

Five percent of a worker’s paycheck is automatically deducted, increasing by 1 percentage point a year to 8%. But workers are free at any time to change the amount or opt out altogether.


“We are sensitive to the fact that many people work two or three jobs to put food on the table,” Selenski said. “But even if people contribute as little as 1%, that adds up over time with the magic of compound interest.”

Workers can take their IRA with them whenever they change jobs.

Why is CalSavers necessary?

In theory, workers can go to a financial institution and open their own IRAs. But few do so. Fees, a required minimum balance and the complexity of figuring out how to invest the money can make the process daunting.

“Research shows that people are 15 times more likely to save for retirement if they have the tools to do so through their employer,” Selenski said.

Employees of Walker Workshop, an architectural firm, were among those who signed up for a CalSavers pilot program in 2018.
Employees of Walker Workshop, an architectural firm, were among those who signed up for a CalSavers pilot program in 2018.
(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

Over the last year, a pilot CalSavers program enrolled 50 businesses — from a well-paying architectural firm to lower-paying catering and janitorial companies — and found that only 22.5% of their workers opted out of automatic paycheck deductions.


How is the money invested?

Under the automatic settings, a worker’s first $1,000 in contributions are placed in a low-risk money-market fund with the rest invested in a target-date fund, which holds different mixes of stocks, bonds and other investment based on the expected retirement date.

A sustainable investment fund, which accounts for environmental, social and governance factors, is also available in addition to a core bond fund and a global equity fund.

At the outset of the program, investment fees will be between 0.825% and 0.95% of assets, depending on the investment option, but are expected to shrink as the program grows.

CalSavers is overseen by a nine-member public board chaired by the state treasurer. Ascensus, a Pennsylvania-based retirement provider, will administer the program. Boston-based State Street Global Advisors is the manager of four funds, and Newton Investment Management, based in London, administers the sustainable investment fund.

What about the self-employed or gig workers?


Beginning in September, workers who are independent contractors, called 1099 workers after the IRS form they use to pay taxes, may enroll in CalSavers individually.

“They will go to our website, sign up and link their bank accounts to a CalSavers account,” Selenski said.

Twitter: @margotroosevelt