Social Security vs Railroad Retirement, Disability, and Survivor Benefits

Federal railroad retirement and disability benefits are often higher than Social Security benefits.

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Gavel and Scales

Railroad workers are entitled to participate in a federal retirement and disability program similar to Social Security. The railroad retirement program offers different and somewhat expanded benefits from Social Security, however. Additionally, the program is administered by the Railroad Retirement Board (RRB) and not by Social Security Administration (SSA). Like the SSA, the RRB is a federal agency.

Railroad benefits are divided into two tiers. Tier 1 is more like traditional Social Security, whereas Tier 2 is more like a private pension plan.

Tier 1 Railroad Benefits

Tier 1 benefits include retirement, disability, spousal, and survivors benefits.

Retirement

Retirement benefits are calculated the same way as Social Security retirement benefits, but the eligibility requirements differ. To be eligible for railroad retirement benefits, a worker must have been employed by the railroad for just five years (if the employment was after 1995), or ten years if the employment was before 1995. There is a reduction in retirement benefits, however, if the worker was employed by the railroad for less than 30 years.

Just like with Social Security, a railroad worker is not entitled to take retirement benefits until the age of 62 (with one exception, below). Also like Social Security, if benefits are taken at this age, it is considered early retirement, and benefits will be permanently reduced. Normal railroad retirement age is between 65 and 67, depending on the birthdate of the worker. This is the same as for Social Security.

However, unlike Social Security, RRB allows a person to get full retirement benefits at the age of 60 if he or she has worked for at least 30 years for an RRB covered employer.

Additional Tier 1 Railroad Retirement Annuity

A small additional annuity payment is available to someone who:

  • has worked for at least 25 years for an RRB covered employer
  • began working for the railroad before October 1, 1981, and
  • is currently connected to the railroad company.

To receive this additional annuity, the worker must be either

  • 60 years of age, with at least 30 years of work with an RRB covered employer, or
  • 65 years of age, with 25 to 29 years of work with an RRB covered employer.

Disability Benefits

The RRB follows the same definition of disability as the SSA. This means that to be eligible for RRB disability, a worker’s disability must be severe enough to prevent him or her from performing substantial gainful activity (SGA) for at least one year. For 2014, SGA was defined as earning $1,070 a month from working.

To get the full RRB disability amount, a railroad worker must have at least ten years of covered employment. If a worker has only five years of employment with the railroad (after 1995), then he or she can qualify for RRB disability benefits if the worker has earned at least 20 Social Security work credits from the last ten years.

Unlike Social Security, workers covered by RRB are also eligible for an “occupational disability” benefit. This benefit helps people who can still do some type of work, but whose disability prevents them from doing their normal railroad duty. To be eligible for this benefit, the railroad worker must:

  • have at least 20 years of covered RRB service and be currently connected with the railroad industry, or
  • be between the age of 60 and full retirement age with at least ten years of covered railroad employment and a current connection to the railroad industry.

Spousal Benefits

Spouses of railroad employees who qualify for railroad retirement may also qualify for benefits equal to about half of the covered spouse’s payment. This amount can be affected, though, if the covered worker takes early retirement.

To be entitled to spouse’s benefits, the spouses must:

  • have been married for at least one year or have conceived a child, and
  • the railroad worker must no longer be engaged in any employment that is covered by RRB.

The age and service requirements are the same as for retirement benefits (discussed above).

Also, the spouse of a covered railroad worker can get benefits at any age if:

  • he or she is taking care of the worker’s child and that child is under the age of 18, or
  • he or she is taking care of the worker’s child and that child became disabled before the age of 22.

Divorced Spouses

Divorced spouses are also entitled to Tier 1 benefits based on the same rules and regulations as Social Security. This means that former spouses are eligible if:

  • the spouses were married for at least ten years
  • the non-RRB covered spouse hasn’t remarried (unless over the age of 60, or over the age of 50 if disabled), and
  • the former spouse can’t get an equal or higher benefit amount on his or her own or someone else’s earnings record.

Children's Benefits

Unlike Social Security, children of railroad workers can technically only get RRB if the covered parent has died. On the other hand, RRB includes a minimum payment provision to make sure that a family who is covered by RRB will get the same amount in benefits as a similarly situated family who is getting Social Security benefits. So a family with child under 18 will get an increase in their retirement or disability benefits to account for the child.

Survivors Benefits

To be eligible for RRB survivors benefits, the deceased railroad worker must:

  • have at least 10 years of RRB covered service or five years of RRB covered service after 1995, and
  • have had a current connection to the railroad when he or she died or retired.

If the criteria for RRB survivors benefits can’t be met, any credits that were earned while performing RRB covered work are transferred to Social Security. The transferred credits can then be used to get Social Security survivors benefits.

Survivors benefits can be paid to:

  • widow(er)s
  • former spouses
  • dependent children
  • children under the age of 18
  • children between the ages of 18 and 19 who are in the 12th grade or below
  • children who became disabled before the age of 22
  • dependent grandchildren (if both parents are deceased or disabled), and
  • dependent parents.

Limits on survivors benefits are calculated in the same way as Social Security survivors benefits. To learn more about how benefit amounts are calculated, read our article Social Security Survivor's Benefits After the Death of a Disabled Worker and Survivors Benefits for Divorced Spouses.

Tier II Railroad Benefits

Unlike Social Security, RRB retirement has a second tier of benefits that functions similarly to private pension plans. These benefits, called Tier II benefits, are calculated based on the covered worker’s average income using the worker’s five years of highest earnings. The benefit amount is then determined using a complex formula based in part on how long the worker was employed by the railroad, and is then adjusted to account for cost of living increases. You can learn more about how Tier II benefits are calculated on United State’s RRB website.

Tier II benefits can also be paid to current spouses and survivors. However, former spouses are entitled to Tier II benefits only if the entitlement was part of the spouses’ property settlement agreement.

Unemployment and Sickness Benefits

Unlike Social Security, workers covered by RRB may also be entitled to unemployment or sickness benefits. Contact the RRB for more information on these benefits.

Contact Information for the Railroad Retirement Board

You can find your local RRB field office using the RRB's field office locator. You can also speak to an RRB representative by calling the RRB at 877-772-5772 from 9:00 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., Monday through Friday, EST.

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