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Public Pension Funds Adjust to Life Under Quarantine

Meetings are being cancelled or moved online as staffers are sent home to work remotely.

Public pension funds are finding ways to continue operations, even as many have had to close offices and ask staff to work remotely amid concerns over the spread of coronavirus.  

Sources at several state employee and teacher retirement systems told Institutional Investor that teleconferencing is the new normal as national and local government officials call for social distancing in an effort to contain the novel virus.

While the ongoing pandemic has forced changes in how pension staffers live and work, these pension officials said that it would not impact their funds’ overall investment strategies.

“We’re long-term investors,” John Kuczwanski, manager of external affairs at the State Board of Administration of Florida, said by phone. “We were in good shape going into this relatively short-term event, and outside of a potential rebalance depending on where the downturn takes us, we are staying our course.” 

The Washington State Investment Board is similarly making “no investment changes other than some prudent rebalancing to align with existing policy allocations,” according to Chris Phillips, director of institutional relations and public affairs.

Phillips said in an emailed statement that WSIB has most of its employees working from home right now “with strict hygiene and distancing protocols in place to allow for select access to our headquarters office for essential duties.” 

The Washington fund is currently conducting business via dial-in conference calls, Skype, Zoom, and other tools. Investment committee and related meetings will go on as scheduled, according to Phillips, who noted that one such meeting would occur on Friday.

“Fortunately, the majority of our employees are accustomed to working remotely, which has helped ease this adjustment, but there is no doubt that it’s been a real adjustment to have so many of us working in this manner at the same time,” he said.  

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Florida SBA is also making plans to go ahead with its March investment advisory meeting on the 31st, according to Kuczwanski. He said that for the first time, the retirement system would hold its meeting virtually using a program called Citrix GoToWebinar.  

“We’re just trying to make sure that all the Ts are crossed and Is dotted,” Kuczwanski said. “We’ll be testing it on Friday. We don’t have any concerns since it’s the same system we use for other remote work.” 

The New York State Teachers’ Retirement System similarly plans to use a program called WebEx to hold online meetings, according to a fund spokesperson.

In California, the country’s largest pension fund was forced to take more drastic measures after one employee showed symptoms of the virus. The California Public Employees’ Retirement System announced on March 15 that it had closed and disinfected its San Francisco headquarters, and that the employee was self-isolating after having been tested.  

As a result, CalPERS had to cancel its investment committee meeting and other committee meetings scheduled for Monday and Tuesday, according to CalPERS spokesperson Megan White. Items slated for those meetings have been pushed to the retirement system’s April 20 and 21 meetings, she said. 

On Wednesday, the retirement system’s board convened via teleconference to discuss matters related to its Office of Administrative Hearings, a meeting that White said was already scheduled to take place. 

By fate of scheduling, some pension funds aren’t hosting meetings until May, which haven’t yet been canceled. The California State Teachers’ Retirement System, for example, is still scheduled to hold its May 2020 meeting, but its staff and board are looking at ways to teleconference, according to Vanessa Garcia, a spokesperson for CalSTRS.  

Likewise, the Missouri State Employees’ Retirement System doesn’t have a meeting scheduled until May 21. “We will assess the situation closer to that time and opt for a conference call or virtual meeting format, if necessary,” MOSERS spokesperson Candy Smith said via email.  

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