What Is CalPERS?

The California Public Employees' Retirement System, also known as CalPERS, is an organization that provides numerous benefits to its 1.9 million members. Benefits available to members include health insurance, long-term care insurance, death benefits, a mortgage program, and the distribution of pension and retirement-related financial benefits.

Understanding CalPERS

As of 2018, CalPERS managed $350 billion in assets, making it the largest public pension fund in the nation. At this time, close to 3,000 employers were participating in CalPERS, including more than 1,300 school districts and 1,500 public agencies in California. CalPERS pays for member benefits through a combination of member and employer contributions and investment income.

Members of CalPERS include state and school employees, some judges and legislators, as well as workers for participating local public agencies such as police and firefighters. Not every city or county in California participates in CalPERS, and participating employers sometimes leave the organization.

Retirement compensation for CalPERS members is based on a formula that uses factors such as an employee’s age when they retire, years of service and final salary. The formula used varies among participating employers.

In addition to retirement benefits, most CalPERS members also receive health benefits. They often can include their family members as recipients of health benefits. Some jobs also offer disability and industrial disability retirement benefits for CalPERS members.

History of CalPers

CalPERS began as the State Employees’ Retirement System in 1932. The program expanded to cover participating counties, cities and school districts in 1939. Just over 20 years later, the retirement program grew to offer health insurance. The organization took its current name in 1992 to differentiate itself from other state programs.

CalPERS Investments

Given its size, CalPERS Investments carries great power and is able to exercise significant pressure to make desired changes within the companies in which it invests. The fund invests in both foreign and domestic markets.

CalPERS Investments publishes an annual "Focus List," which contains companies with concerning financial performance and questionable or undesirable corporate governance practices. If CalPERS boycotted these companies, it could pose a significant threat to their attractiveness as a business for investment by other firms. So instead the organization works with listed companies to improve their performance. The resulting turnaround for companies on the Focus List has created a phenomenon known as the "CalPERS effect."

Over the years, CalPERS has successfully used its considerable influence in various ways such as calling for the resignation of a corporate executive and taking part in a class-action lawsuit against UnitedHealth Group Inc. These activities have earned CalPERS a pro-labor reputation.