Unless you have a lot of money in the bank, or a second job waiting for you, retirement from the federal government may be the start of a nightmare that costs you your home, car and sanity.
Many ex-government workers find that the first months of their Golden Years can be hellish as they wait, and wait, and wait for their retirement checks to start arriving.
Thousands of government workers retire each month, and the vast majority make the financial and psychological adjustment. Some immediately return to their old agencies as "reemployed annuitants" or in some sort of consulting role. But many people -- too many, judging from frantic appeals to Congress and newspapers -- get caught in a financial bind because red tape, inefficiency or complications with their records delay retirement checks for months. Unless they have substantial savings, they can run into real financial problems. Some examples:
Last August, a woman retired from D.C. Government after more than 20 years' service. She figured her monthly retirement check would be between $1,300 and $1,400. That is a comfortable annuity. The problem is that she has not received a single penny of her pension after four months as a retiree.
In mid-August, a Federal Aviation Administration aide quit, expecting an annuity of between $800 and $900 per month. He got a partial payment of around $600 in November and another $600 partial payment on Dec. 1. He says he cannot find out when his full check will start arriving. He is married and has children -- and all the bills that go with them -- in college. He is worried about them being able to stay in school, and about making mortgage payments on his house.
A former Treasury Department worker who quit last summer said he has exhausted the money he got for unused annual leave and had to borrow from his children while awaiting his first retirement check. He is giving people IOU's for Christmas.
A high-ranking govenment official retired earlier this year after nearly 40 years with Uncle Sam. He got his monthly retirement checks quickly. But he has been swamped with calls from subordinates who also retired and who still are getting only partial payments until their records "get cleared up." He has been pulling strings at his old agency and with the Office of Personnel Mamagement to help, but thinks it is a "damm shame" it has to work this way.
An employe with the Norfolk Naval Shipyard has numerous financial problems, and creditors were breathing down his neck. Coworkers told him that if he quit (he was not old enough to retire) he could get back all the money he had contributed into the civil service retirement fund. That is 7 percent of salary per year. He figured he could pay off his debts and start again.
The man, who has a lot more faith in government computers than most of us, piled his family into the car and drove here. He presented himself at OPM, announced he had quit and asked for his retirement-contribution rebate. Naturally he didn't have papers showing he had retired, and his paper work had not even begun to clear the Navy process it had to go through before it could be forwarded to OPM. He wound up at the office of a North Carolina Senator, saying he had only $15 in his pocket and a carful of hungry kids. He went home sadder and wiser, but without the payback that will take time to clear.
The government isn't the out-and-out villain of this piece. Paper work is necessary to determine where and how long an individual worked, military service credit and whether the employe owes Uncle Sam money. Some agencies are very slow at processing papers, and OPM can't authorize payments until it knows for sure that the individual is retired, what he or she is owed, etc. That is little consolation to somebody who goes from getting a paycheck every week to retirement, where checks - when they start coming -- arrive monthly.
Federal officials anticipate a surge of retirements next month -- the estimate is 25,000 -- as people quit to cash in on the look-back benefit that expires Jan. 18. There is already a backlog. The new rush will make it worse. Even if things go well, there could be delays before those first checks arrive, and even longer delays before people get full payments.
If you are planning to retire from government, stock up on pork and beans now and be prepared to dip into your savings until that first full pension check arrives. Waiting for the mail is a heckuva way to wind up a career in public service -- but it happens.