Pay freeze, furloughs might push employees to retire, but stats don’t show it yet


Postal carrier Tony Quach sorts mail in his truck as he was making his rounds in Silver Spring, in February. According to the Office of Personnel Management, the spike in federal retirements comes from early retirements in the U.S. Postal Service. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)
Joe Davidson
Columnist March 14, 2013

Take a look at the recent federal retirement figures and you can easily get the impression that feds are fleeing the pay freeze and pending furloughs like members of Congress leaving the Capitol on a Thursday night.

Citing the hardships federal employees will face because of the budgets cuts known as the sequester, Colleen M. Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union (NTEU), said that “many of the most talented and experienced will likely head for the exits.”

Joe Davidson writes the Federal Diary, a column about the federal workplace that celebrated its 80th birthday in November 2012. View Archive

In testimony Wednesday to the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, she pointed to data showing a recent “large increase in the number of federal workers leaving the workforce, primarily to retire.”

“In February 2013, 20,374 federal employees retired. That is more than three times the number who retired in February 2012. So far, in 2013, 42,561 employees have retired, about 40 percent of the entire total for 2012. A large increase in retirements is especially alarming since approximately 53 percent of the federal workforce will be eligible to retire by next year, and a significant loss of these experienced employees could leave agencies, already stretched thin, in dire circumstances.”

The Office of Personnel Management, however, where Kelley got her data, says the spike was mostly because of U.S. Postal Service personnel taking early retirement. In February, postal retirements accounted for about 73 percent of the total, according to OPM. Postal workers are not subject to the pay freeze and budget cuts affecting government generally, because thePostal Service does not use tax money for operating expenses.

“Based on historical workload trends, we generally see a spike in retirement claims in January after the end of the year, and, typically, that number drops in February,” said OPM spokesman Thomas Richards. “This year, close to 21,000 Postal Service employees accepted early-outs. Of those postal early-outs, approximately 3,000 came into OPM in January and 15,000 came into OPM in February, causing a spike in retirement claims. After working closely with the Postal Service in preparation for the early-outs, we were able to process a record 15,333 retirement claims in February. We expect the remainder of the early-outs to arrive in March and April.”

Curiously, the Postal Service had no comment Thursday. In 2011, however, Postmaster General Patrick R. Donahoe spoke of offering $20,000 incentive payments to encourage early retirements as a way to cut personnel costs.

Kelley is correct when she said that “actual retirements have been higher than OPM projections for nine of the last 14 months.”

And she made a good point when she told the Senate: “The federal employees I represent are frustrated, angry and scared. They have been under a pay freeze for more than two years. They are facing significant pay cuts due to sequestration. They are not sure if they will face yet another potential government shutdown on March 27. And they know the debt ceiling and the possibility of a government default is coming back this summer.

“These employees work really hard and care about their jobs. They know that budgets need to be tight, but as they see the waste that comes from the lack of timely congressional action, the contingency planning and short-term patch-up solutions that cost more in the long term, you shouldn’t be surprised that they think the wrong people are getting their pay cut.”

Kelley was testifying at a hearing about “The Costs and Impacts of Crisis Budgeting,” this herky-jerky way Congress has of going from one stopgap measure to another.

“We have definitely seen an uptick in the numbers of our members who are retiring,” she told the Federal Diary. “I believe it is related to a number of factors: constant attacks by some in Congress and the media, pay freezes, threats of unpaid furlough days, a lack of funding for agencies and resources to get the work done, and fears about potential changes to the retirement system.”

Witness Henry Powell, who retired in January after 20 years with the Internal Revenue Service. The pay freeze, the threat of furloughs and increased retirement contributions “had an awful lot to do with it,” he said. “Me and quite a lot of co-workers discussed this.”

Though Powell, a former NTEU chapter leader in Baltimore, is 70 years old, he said he probably would not have retired as a telephone customer service agent if conditions had been better for feds.

“I honestly don’t think so,” he said in an interview. “I would have continued to work. I enjoyed the job.”

But he fell victim to what Sen. Thomas R. Carper (D-Del.), chairman for the Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee, called “a way of doing business in Washington that makes it impossible for the federal government as a whole to give taxpayers the results they demand in an effective and affordable manner.”

One result of doing business this way, Carper said, is “degraded federal employee morale.”

Sen. Tom A. Coburn of Oklahoma, the top Republican on the panel, recalled a comment by “Will Rogers, a great Oklahoman [who] once said, ‘I don’t make jokes. I just watch the government and report the facts.’ Only, government dysfunction is no laughing matter. . . . We can and should do better.”

If not, expect more people to adopt the attitude about government work that Powell said many of his colleagues have:

“The hell with it.”

Previous columns by Joe Davidson are available at wapo.st/JoeDavidson.

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