By 2016, more than a third of the federal workforce will be eligible to retire, according to the Government Accountability Office, which has put the pending loss of so many experienced workers on its “high-risk” list of management challenges for government.
Among them will be nearly three in five senior executives and almost half the ranks of top managers.
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Swensen kept working at the Agriculture Department four years past the day he was eligible to retire. He would have stayed longer, he said, though his long commute from Catonsville, Md., was tiring him. But with bills pending in Congress to change the way retirement annuities are calculated, Swenson said he was convinced his earnings could soon be based on his highest five earning years instead of the highest three, as they are now. That would cost him: “It would have made a few thousand dollars difference in my check,” he said.
In interviews, recently retired senior executives from across the government offered a range of reasons for their decisions to leave. Most cited the pay freeze, the public’s negative opinion about federal workers and government spending cuts, which have resulted in furloughs, less overtime and a larger workload for many.
Craig Charles retired last year at 49 after a 25-year career in customs and immigration enforcement in Kansas City. He said he left the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency “very unhappy,” in part because of frustration with inexperienced political appointees who were in charge. Also, he hadn’t had a raise in three years, “and that was getting pretty old.” And as a manager in charge of air operations, budget cuts weighed on him.
“Everybody was under the constraints of sequestration and a lack of money,” he said. “It was constant scrambling for the budget.”
Peter Henry retired from the Department of Veterans Affairs in 2011 after working there for 41 years and 11 months. He had run two hospitals for veterans in the Blacks Hills of South Dakota and received a pair of prestigious awards for high-performing senior employees, the last in 2010. But amid criticism in Congress over federal pay, his supervisors told him to keep the $12,000 bonus he won a secret.
“It was like, ‘You will be shot if anybody discovers you got this,’ ” Henry, 66, recalled.
This year, the Obama administration eliminated the awards, and most bonuses for top managers.
“I certainly didn’t want to be part of being embarrassed and ashamed of what I did for a living,” Henry said. “It was a very honorable profession.”