CalSavers History: From Pioneering Vision to Launch
California was the first state in the country to conceive of and pass legislation to establish a state-run retirement savings program for private sector workers designed to address the retirement security crisis threatening families nationwide. The CalSavers Retirement Savings Program (formerly known as Secure Choice) is the groundbreaking result of a decade-long effort to bolster retirement security for millions of California workers. CalSavers was made possible by the leadership and support of a pioneering coalition of policymakers, labor unions, community groups, advocates, researchers, and philanthropists in California and nationwide.
2008 – 2012: From Vision to First Legislative Passage
In 2008, when the first piece of legislation was introduced by then-Assemblymember Kevin de León, many studies had demonstrated the growing problem of retirement insecurity nationwide and a series of studies conducted by the UC Berkeley Labor Center in 2011 demonstrated the severity of the problem specifically in California. Among other findings, the studies found nearly half of California workers were on track to face significant economic hardship at retirement.
The problem was clear: Too many Californians faced an uncertain financial future. However, a solution was also clear: Ensure nearly all Californians have a simple way to save for their retirement through their job.
Then, as a State Senator, de León introduced legislation (Senate Bills 1234 and 923) that would provide the framework for the eventual implementation of the CalSavers program. Labor, community, and business groups supporting the legislation proved to be vital to its passage. Support from labor organizations, including SEIU California and several SEIU Locals; social welfare organizations including AARP, UnidosUS (formerly National Council of La Raza), EARN, the United Ways of California, and the New America Foundation; and business advocacy organizations including the Small Business Majority, Asian Business Association, California Black Chamber of Commerce, Latin Business Association, and the South Asian Business Alliance Network, led to passage of the legislation in 2012.
This successful legislation provided a model for the dozens of other states and cities that soon embarked on similar efforts to address retirement insecurity with help from grassroots advocates at state and federal levels. Many states introduced legislation in the years following and several states are currently working to implement programs similar to CalSavers.
2013 – 2016: Establishment of the Board, Feasibility Study, Final Legislative Passage
The legislation formally established the nine-member California Secure Choice Retirement Savings Investment Board, named the State Treasurer as chair of the Board, prescribed how the program could be operated, and required the Board to conduct a market analysis to determine if the necessary conditions to implement CalSavers could be satisfied.
The founding Board was composed of experts from the fields of retirement and investments, labor unions, and small business management, in addition to public members and the State Controller, the Director of Finance, and the State Treasure (as chair). The Board first met in September 2013 to begin developing a plan for completing the market analysis using only funds generously donated from private sources, including the Laura and John Arnold Foundation, SEIU, AARP, the California Teachers Association, the Ford Foundation, the California Endowment, the Pew Charitable Trusts, former State Senator and current member of the U.S. House of Representatives Ted Lieu, and former California State Controller Steve Westley.
One of the Board’s first actions was to release a request for information to solicit the advice and expertise of the public on the potential design of the program. More than two dozen think tanks, advocacy organizations, financial service providers, industry trade groups, and others returned responses. This input provided the Board with a litany of valuable recommendations for the design of the program and identified a number of program design considerations worthy of further analysis.
In 2015, then-State Treasurer John Chiang traveled throughout the state to meet with advocates, local business groups, and other community members to discuss the program and listen to their comments, ideas, and concerns. Treasurer Chiang’s listening tour spanned the state, with nine events in Bakersfield, Los Angeles, Riverside, Sacramento, San Bernardino, and San Francisco.
In 2016, the Board hired a group of consultants and experts convened by Overture Financial LLC. The team was made up of researchers from the UC Berkeley Center for Labor Research and Education, market researchers Greenwald & Associates, human resources and benefits consultants Segal Consulting, and management consulting firm BridgePoint. The consultants completed a rigorous market analysis, program design, and financial feasibility study to develop financial assumptions about the program, establish the market profile of likely participants and their preferences, and identify optimal program design features based on the analysis. Among other things, the study found over 6.8 million working Californians would be eligible for the Program and the Program would be financially viable under a wide range of conditions and outcomes. Following completion of the study, the Board submitted letters to the leadership of the California State Legislature to provide recommendations on legislation to implement the program.
On September 29, 2016 then-Governor Jerry Brown signed Senate Bill 1234 to approve the implementation of the program.
2017: Team Infrastructure, Stakeholder Engagement, and Program Design
Implementing legislation took effect January 1, 2017, and on April 21, 2017, then-State Treasurer John Chiang appointed Katie Selenski to serve as the Board’s first Executive Director. CalSavers staff grew throughout 2017 to a total of six members by early 2018. The founding staff were passionately mission-driven and collectively represented decades of experience inside and outside state government, including expertise in retirement policy and investment management.
The program also built a premier team of consultants and advisors to aid its development. The Board continued its engagement with distinguished law firm K&L Gates; hired AKF Consulting, a leading advisor to state-run consumer savings programs, in August 2017 to serve as the general program consultant; and hired Meketa Investment Group, prominent advisor to California public funds, in December 2017 to serve as investment consultant. The Board also worked with California-based branding firm, Flip2 (formerly Crescendo) to create a new market-tested name and logo, and voted in December 2017 to change the name of the program from Secure Choice to CalSavers.
In summer of 2017, staff convened two informal stakeholder working groups, one consisting of organizations representing employers, small business, and employer-serving groups, and another consisting of organizations representing employees, likely CalSavers participants, and various demographic groups, including people of color, young adults, retired persons, immigrants, and low to moderate income workers. During the summer and early fall of 2017, these stakeholder groups were focused on advising CalSavers staff and the Board on constituent interests regarding the design of the program and ultimately informing staff’s development of regulations.
After months of development, including input from policy and industry experts across the country and multiple public comment periods and workshops, the Board adopted a set of proposed regulations that would establish certain program features, including allowing individuals to participate on their own even if they don’t work for a participating employer, establishing a 5% default contribution rate with automatic escalation, and a series of other program design features aimed at encouraging participants to accrue meaningful retirement savings through CalSavers. The regulations were formally adopted in late-2018.
2018: Program Build, Outreach, and Pilot Launch
The Board continued its work by shifting stakeholder engagement to focusing on outreach opportunities, hiring a program administrator and investment manager, adopting governing policies, and formally adopting regulations.
In early 2018, the Board adopted a governance policy that established formal roles of the Board and staff in providing strategic leadership, financial oversight, and program administration.
In the spring of 2018, the Board adopted an investment policy statement that established the Board’s underlying philosophies and processes for the selection, monitoring, and evaluation of the investments offered to CalSavers participants.
In the summer of 2018, the Board hired Ascensus College Savings Recordkeeping Services (Ascensus) to serve as program administrator due to their long track record administering retirement plans and other state-run investment programs. The Board also hired State Street Global Advisors to serve as investment manager due to the low costs of their funds, thoughtful investment design, and long history of risk-adjusted performance.
In the fall of 2018, the Board formally adopted the Program’s first set of regulations, which established and clarified the rules and policies regarding operation of the Program.
After providing extensive, valuable input on the regulations in the summer and fall of 2017, the stakeholder working groups shifted their focus to planning outreach and education efforts. Working closely with CalSavers staff, the United Ways of California, with funding from the Friedman Family Foundation, facilitated a statewide stakeholder outreach and engagement planning process. The participants identified business and consumer outreach strategies and potential messages needed for an effective outreach program. Recognizing that engaging trusted local organizations and leaders was critical to outreach efforts, the participants recommended developing regional workgroups composed of stakeholders to develop and implement region-specific outreach plans. In early 2018, with a second round of funding from the Friedman Family Foundation and other funders, United Way began working with their local affiliates to build CalSavers outreach and engagement workgroups in regions throughout the state.
Recognizing stakeholder engagement will be a vital part of the implementation and operation of CalSavers, staff also continued to identify and work with state and local business, labor, and community based organizations and other stakeholders to spread the word about CalSavers to their constituents and encourage them to join the regional workgroups.
AARP led a collaborative effort among stakeholders and funded a partnership with the News & Review to develop the Program’s first professional promotional material. The print material and videos were released spring 2018 and are available here.
The pilot program began in November 2018, when the first employer registered with CalSavers. The pilot continued through the rest of the year into 2019.
2019: Statewide Launch
At the start of 2019, new State Treasurer and Board chair Fiona Ma was sworn into office, bringing a wealth of legislative experience and, as the first woman Certified Public Accountant elected to the position, public accounting expertise to the Board.
Through the first half of 2019, the Board focused its work on the pilot phase of the Program and preparing for the full statewide launch. The Board approved a contract with Newton Investment Management North (Newton) to provide an environmental, social, and governance (ESG) investment option, making it the first state-administered retirement savings program for private sector workers to provide an ESG investment option.
On July 1, 2019, the program officially launched to all eligible employers.
- Enabling legislation authored by Senator Kevin De León is approved.
- Legislature places new program in the State Treasurer's Office
- A nine-member board, chaired by the State Treasurer, is created to study the legal, market, and financial feasibility.
- Board raised $1 million from private contributions.
- Board contracts with experts for studies
- Senate Bill 1234 takes effect
- California State Treasurer John Chiang appoints Katie Selenski as Executive Director
- Board hires Ascensus College Savings Recordkeeping Services, LLC as third-party administrator and investment manager to operate program
- Board hires State Street Global Advisors to provide investment options
- Board approves proposed regulations and initiates rulemaking
- New www.calsavers.com website launched
- Pilot launch scheduled for late-November 2018
- New California State Treasurer Fiona Ma sworn into office
- Board hires Newton to provide ESG investment option
- Second phase of pilot begins in mid-April
- CalSavers officially launched for all eligible employers July 1, 2019