After almost two months of a scheduled six-month pension hunting season, fewer than 1 percent of the 2 million eligible federal workers have left their current retirement nest for a new industry-style retirement package.
By Dec. 31 nearly all federal workers hired before Jan. 1, 1984, must sign a paper saying they will stay with the old pension plan or switch forever to the Federal Employees Retirement System that replaced it.
Despite a multimillion-dollar campaign with guidebooks, films and 9,000 full-time pension counselors, only a small number elected to leave the old system -- with its promise of inflation-indexed pensions based on pay and longevity -- for a more complex plan in which benefits come from Social Security, a less generous annuity and earnings from an optional tax-deferred investment program.
When Congress set up FERS for post-1983 hires, it estimated that 40 percent of workers under the old plan would come into FERS this year.
"We gave a party and nobody came," said one federal official, describing the lack of interest in FERS.
"What this open season does is force everybody in government to face mid-life crisis," he said. "They've got to decide their career plans, when they want to retire and contemplate their life expectancy." The expectation is that most employes will wait until the last minute, partly to find out what additional changes Congress may make that would affect their pension decision.
Most federal agencies report little pension-changing action. The exception is Capitol Hill. Many members of Congress and staff members, perhaps anticipating shorter federal careers than most civil servants, are moving into FERS. Examples of the foot-dragging:
About 90 percent of the U.S. Postal Service's 800,000 workers must make a pension decision this year. As of Friday, only about 1,000 people in the largest federal agency have switched pension plans.
Only 303 of 90,000 eligible Agriculture Department employes have signed up for FERS so far, officials say.
Only 882 of the 162,543 eligible employes of the Veterans Administration have switched to FERS.
Fewer than 1 percent of the Air Force's 205,000 civilians have signed up for FERS.
Early this month the Pentagon laid on an expensive pension plan seminar. Experts were brought in to give information and advice to employes, who were invited to attend free and on company time. One worker showed up.
Generally speaking, the old plan is better for workers planning to make full careers in government. FERS is better for those who don't plan to retire from government, primarily because all the money they (and the government) invest in their thrift savings plan is portable.
The thrift savings plan is open to workers under either pension plan. But FERS workers get extra benefits. People who stay in the old system are limited to contributing 5 percent of pay in the tax-deferred thrift savings plan. Under FERS, workers can put in 10 percent (or $7,000 a year), with those investing 5 percent or more eligible for a 5 percent match from the government.
"We don't know when the rush will start, or if it will start," the head of a pension benefits office said Friday. "But I'm telling my people not to count on any vacations in November and December."