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Federal Diary: Mike Causey

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Thursday, November 4, 1999

In a company town like Washington, D.C., where the federal government employs thousands of workers, "Federal Diary" is practically required reading. Those who are in the federal work force and want to keep up with what's happening in government turn to Mike Causey. His column appears in The Washington Post Sunday through Friday.

Mike Causey
Mike Causey (The Post)

Causey has chronicled the ins and outs of working for the government in "Federal Diary" since 1972. He makes sense of the labyrinth of bureaucracy and clarifies issues from pension plans and health care to contract disputes. He discussed the government work force on "Free Media" on Thursday, Nov. 4. His own talk show is scheduled to debut next week. The transcript follows:

Free Media: Good afternoon, Mike, and welcome. Your column this morning talked about voluntary early retirement programs. How large a movement is there among federal employees for early retirement? Who's the typical early retiree?

Mike Causey: Good question. According to data from OPM only 2 to 3 percent of the folks who are eligible for, and offered early outs take them – unless they also get a buyout. Then the number jumps. But as a stand alone option it seems that everybody wants to have it, but when time comes to make a decision they don't take it. Lots of retirement experts think the 2 percent reduction (for under-55 retirees) is a factor, even though they say that financially it is not that big a deal. Hope this helps. MC

Tyson's Corner, Va.: My questions are about the Government Performance and Results Act (GPRA).
1. Who is the"owner," "father-mother" of the act?
2. How successful is it considered to be (so far)?
3. Do you think it will survive if the administration changes in the next election?

Mike Causey: I know very little about GPRA. Seems to be we have had all this before, with different initials such as PBM, MBO (management by objectives) etc. I don't know the congressional mom and pop but suspect the idea came from Vice President Gore.

Herndon, Va.: I recently noticed a big jump in the life insurance premiums which were deducted from my federal pension check. The old premium was $1.69 per $1000 of coverage, whereas the new premium is $2.04 per $1000 of coverage. I may have missed it but I haven't seen any coverage of this in "Federal Diary." What's going on here?

Mike Causey: The only time there is a life insurance open season – when people can switch – is when the law has been changed, or premiums are going up, or down. The open season was covered in great detail (too great for some people) in the column. Bottom line: Some premiums (age-based) went down. Some went up. Some people got the chance to halt the declining value of their premiums after retirement. But that window is closed if you missed it. Tnx MC

Research Triangle Park, N.C.: I would like to know some of the more expensive perks that our representatives and senators enjoy that are not included in the ridiculously low salaries that they collect.

Mike Causey: We don't have enough time or space. Haircuts on Capitol Hill used to cost about a buck – but they have gone up and most MCs now go to hair stylists – nor barbers. I guess the biggest perks involve things like junkets overseas paid for by our government, or sometimes as guests of other governments, and corporate/union help in providing travel, places to speak (like resorts) and comped rooms and hefty fees sometimes for delivering a speech the union or corporation wrote for them. That said, most members are pretty straight and, we might get even better people if they were paid more.

Waretown, N.J.: I would like to know if you think they will change the windfall elimination law. I worked 21 years in Social Security and 19 in federal government. I an a low grade and I won't get much of a pension. I really need my $400.00 of Social Security I will get. When they take the 2/3 away I won't get anything. It's a shame that this is happening. I am a single woman and I need this to live on. If this is the case they should not let people in private industry get both pension and Social Security. I hope they change this law before I go out. I already worked 40 years straight. I don't want to work 50. They make it harder for people to leave the government.

Mike Causey: The windfall and offset laws aren't going to be changed this year. But lots of congressional support was drummed up this year for changes. My guess would be that the offset law – which hits poor widows hardest – will be the first to be modified with, maybe, some modification of the windfall law to follow. Maybe next year. But don't expect a repeal of either – they were both enacted as a result of clear abuses of the Social Security system by retired feds in the 1970s and 1980s.

Springfield, Ill.: What do you say to a couple of old state workers from Illinois heading for Sanibel Island? Is early retirement in the future in Illinois? (near future that is). We will be headed there over the Veterans' Day holiday to consider this. We understand the mosquitoes to be less intrusive in November.

Mike Causey: Sounds like a great idea. Call EC at (301) 986-4505 or e-mail me details at causeym@washpost.com. Beware the geckos.

Washington, D.C.: So, what's all this angst about what other feds pay for their health insurance? If marrieds with no children think they are paying too much, get two self-only policies. You still have a very good deal. Also there seems to be a lot of concern about same sex partners and insurance coverage. Again, what's it to the people not affected? They still get their coverage. By the way, many private employers that cover same sex partners require the non-employee partner to pay the employer's share. Uncle Sam could do the same thing. Finally, all you whiners that have great coverage, don't worry what's available for others. It's not your business.

Mike Causey: The no kids vs. family feud is a hot one. The government has decided that a group is a group, with minimal sub-units (other than single and family). The government program is the nation's best in that it treats retirees the same as workers. One way the companies can afford to do that is to not dilute the group into subgroups.

D.C.: Mr. C: My agency, which shall remain nameless, is always late in providing the health info brochures from the insurance companies for open season (a few days to over a week after the start of open season). Is it my agency, or is this a common problem?

Mike Causey: I suspect lots of agencies are slow. Downsizing cut into the human resources operation, and buyouts lured lots of the institutional memory out of government. Watch the column over the next few weeks for lots of information about best-buys. Also monitor WUST radio (1120 AM) at 9 a.m. on Saturdays for a series of shows (with Q&A) on the insurance options.

Free Media: Mike, for the uninitiated who may have come upon this discussion, can you talk a little bit about the classifications of government employees – GS2, for example – and how they may be different in different agencies?

Mike Causey: There are very, very few GS 2s left in government. The starting salary in the Washington area is $16,205. At one time they were mostly messenger jobs (often reserved for handicapped vets). Now most are entry-level jobs held by people coming off welfare into a work-training program. There are a lot more GS 15s than GS2s.

Kansas City, Mo.: Is the FAIR A76 here to stay? Or will it go away like within a year or so? Are contractors really going to challenge for positions that are filled with employees and if so and are successful, what happens to the employee?

Mike Causey: I think the political effort to privatize government is here to stay – barring war, national emergency or depression. The difference is that Republicans have always pushed it, but with limited success. But the Clinton administration signed on big time (as in eliminating 320,000 jobs), and now congressional Democrats favor giving government jobs to contractors. Except in their districts. Some of the privatized feds may do better – but leaving the government health and retirement program is a risk.

Free Media: About how many workers does the federal government employ here in D.C.? How many nationwide?

Mike Causey: The official number of feds in the area is about 330,000. That does not include NSA, CIA and some other operations that could boost the numbers another 20,000 to 30,000. Nationwide there are about 2.6 million feds, with the US Postal Service (with 800,000) the biggest. In some agencies – like NASA and Energy – contractors probably outnumber civil servants. On a different payroll but getting their money, ultimately, from the same source.

Richmond, Va.: My brother is applying for a job in the Pentagon. What kind of background checks, etc., can he expect to have to deal with?

Mike Causey: A couple of years ago I would have said very thorough. But background checks have slipped in recent years, partly because of downsizing, contracting out work, etc. A brand new General Accounting Office study has found serious flaws – as in missed data that would be important to security clearances – in the Defense Dept. Depending on the job he wants somebody will talk to neighbors, friends (who can say the darndest things) and maybe even teachers and former employers.

Greenbelt, Md.: Mike:

First thank you for everything you have provided Federal workers for years. You are a treasured national resource!

My wife is in the enviable position of going to be a 50-year-old Fed in CSRS with 30 years in the next five years (GS 12). Did we do the smart thing in staying CSRS (buyers' remorse)? She has no Social Security time.

I, on the other hand, have a private industry well-stocked 401k, small corporate pension and full Social Security at the max amount.

We are both in our mid-40s and looking to GET OUT by 55.

How will CSRP do by us as compared to the new way. I contribute 16 percent to my 401(k) and my wife does not contribute anything extra at all as I get a 50 percent match on my contribution.

Mike Causey: First, thank you. I hope I can get a printout of your note.

Second, CSRS is almost always the best bet for lifers. The annuity is fully indexed to inflation (unlike the newer FERS system) and those annual cost of living adjustments begin when you retire – not at 62 like FERS. Also the annuity formula is more generous. FERS does offer a better 401(k) option, but you seem to have covered that with your job. She will be hit by the offset law when trying to collect a spousal Social Security benefit (based on your Social Security service). But she was smart to stay in CSRS. Be sure she takes health insurance (with you on a family policy)into retirement. To keep you on the policy – should she die first – she must provide you with some kind of survivor benefit (it can be $10 a month) to make you eligible for that wonderful lifetime federal health program. Good luck.

Free Media: Downsizing the government work force has been a pet project of Al Gore's since the beginning of the Clinton administration. How successful has this effort to "shrink the government" been? Was it really necessary or is it a little red meat thrown to the activists?

Mike Causey: It has been a success in numbers terms. About 330,000 jobs were eliminated. There was a political element, of course. The White House decided it wanted to get government down to JFK-era levels.

The downside – paying 150,000 people an average of $24,000 in buyouts to do something (retire) they would have done anyhow. Also, many federal offices are now bare-bones operations – and/or are relying on contractors to do the job. Nobody has a good handle on contractor costs, but the Brookings Institution estimates that 13,000,000 people are federal contractors – as opposed to 2.6 million actual feds.

Norfolk, Va.: I was injured at a shipyard during 1980. I am permanently and totally disabled as the result. At the time of the injury, the longshore compensation act stated that if I died due to a non-injury event, my wife would continue to receive benefits until her death. During 1984, the law was changed so that my wife would get no benefits after my death. Can the government simply reduce benefits anytime it wants? Does this violate the "taking" clause of the constitution?

Mike Causey: Don't know enough about it to comment. Sorry.

Fairfax, Va.: Mike, I read your column every morning. As a Federal Employee, I'm wondering . . . are there any FEHB plans that provide dental and/or vision?? I keep hearing from friends that "the government has the best benefits." I have yet to be convinced of that.

Mike Causey: The government program is the "best" in the sense that it gives you 14 plans to choose from, an annual open season (meaning you won't ever be troubled by any single plans cap on lifetime benefits) and it covers retirees at same rates and perks as young feds. The best dental benefits this year (1999) were all in HMOs. Some paid about half the costs. We will be having a series of columns – starting next week – on the health plans. Dental is one area we will check out. There will be some improvement in eye benefits, but no details yet. Stick with the column, we will have it.

Albany, N.Y.: It sounds as though there's always new legislation and acts to change/deal with the employees of the government work force. How much legislation do these issues – benefits, retirement, the windfall regulations mentioned earlier – generate in a given year or Congress? Or is it just part of the larger issue of laws regulating employment?

Mike Causey: A lot of the stuff is recycled every year. Good and bad. Some of it is just put in to satisfy a constituent group, union, retiree, whatever. But there have been a number of positive changes over the past few years. Main thing is none of the negatives (diet COLAs for retirees), new formula for figuring pensions, higher retirement contributions, have taken place. This year – with repeal of dual compensation law, the relatively high 4.8 percent pay raise, liability insurance copayments – may turn out to be one of the best for feds.

Miami, Fla.: Does the federal government recognize same-sex partners in benefits, etc.?

Mike Causey: No. There are only two categories. Self-only (one person) and family (married couple with or without kids). No same sex benefit option. Check out the Nov. 1 Federal Diary (via Washpost.com) for more detail.

Free Media: Here is Mike's Nov. 1 column: Same-Sex Couple Calls for Equal Coverage

Washington, D.C.: Looks like some changes at my agency may result in RIFs – any advice about what the agency can and cannot do in making decisions about who stays and who goes? And is it still true that you get 60 days notice if you're being RIFed?

Mike Causey: The notification period has been extended and I think it is now 60 days. Main thing an employee can do – especially if you lack tenure because of short-service or nonveteran status – is to stay up on the news, as opposed to rumors, and make sure your personnel jacket is up to date. The RIFs rarely turn out to be as widespread as the initial reports. With early-outs cleared for all agencies, and buyouts available in CIA, Energy, Defense, IRS, GSA and several other agencies the impact of the RIFs (in those agencies) could be minimal.

Bethesda, Md.: Does any particular government agency – federal, state or local – have a reputation for being the best place to work?

Mike Causey: Great question. I suspect that would depend on your career goals and the public mood. AT one time NASA and the FBI were glamour places to work. I doubt if any kid has ever said "I want to grow up and work for the American Battle Monuments Commission" – but maybe so. This is food for thought. Maybe we will have a best-worst contest. Tnx MC

Washington, D.C.: What's the number one complaint you hear from government workers about their jobs? What do people consider to be the best part or their jobs?

— considering a government gig

Mike Causey: The complaints are seasonal – and not that many. Now many folks complain about their health insurance options (which, compared to industry are excellent). Sometimes it is the "gap" with private sector pay. Many, many do say they like their work, like their colleagues and appreciate Uncle Sam. You could do lots worse than becoming a fed.

Springfield, Va.: Hello Mike,

What do you know about the demonstration project? We have it instead of the GS salary. It seems terribly unfair that most federal workers can expect step increases while those under the demonstration project do not (unless they are chummy with their supervisors).

Mike Causey: Demo projects are a strange breed. Navy started it and, so officials say, most employees have done better with pay raises than other the normal GS situation. I'm not so sure.

Chicago, Ill.: What's the percentage of tax revenue that funds the federal work force? I imagine it's broken down by agency and department.

Mike Causey: I'm not sure I've heard it as a percentage. The problem is figuring out what kind of cost. Salary is relatively easy. Average about $58,000 times 2.6 million. But then you get into fringes (cost of retirement), holidays, etc. In private firms the company and the union always come up with very different costs of labor. The percentage of federal employees in relation to the U.S. population has been on the decline for decades. The big growth in government is at the local and state level.

Free Media: Do you know what happened to those government workers who were downsized? They're fending for themselves in the private sector, no doubt, but can their government pensions be rolled over into another retirement plan? Like a 401(k)? Are any benefits "portable"?

Mike Causey: If they are entitled to a federal annuity – CSRS or FERS – they get it. Many companies will allow people to roll over a 401(k) plan (money) from a previous employer. Those feds who couldn't do that hopefully did an institution-to-institution transfer (don't touch the money or it is taxed!) and setup their own IRAs with Vanguard, Chas Schwab, Fidelity or something like that.

Free Media: That was the last question for Mike Causey today. Thanks to Mike, and to everyone who tuned in today. Join us again on Monday, Nov. 8, at noon EST, when "Federal Diary" goes live every other week.

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