Pressure is building in Congress to make major changes in the new pension program being offered to 2 million federal workers. Options being considered:
1. Extend the Dec. 31 deadline for deciding whether to stay with the old Civil Service Retirement System or move forever into the new Federal Employees Retirement System plan.
2. Guarantee by law that high-paid ($50,000 per year and above) federal workers who switch to the FERS plan can continue to invest the maximum in a tax-deferred savings plan.
First the deadline proposal: Since open season for choosing a pension plan began in April, only 3 of every 100 eligible workers have switched to the new FERS plan. Because Congress is still tinkering with the FERS program and its investment options are unclear, many employes feel they can't make an intelligent choice between FERS and CSRS.
Congress is now working on changes in the FERS plan that, if enacted, could affect Social Security benefits of many employes covered by FERS. The changes are complex, and many workers want to know what they are, and if they are going to happen, before picking a pension plan.
Rep. Constance Morella (R-Md.) has asked Congress to extend the CSRS-FERS open season until employes have had a chance to study any changes that are made in the FERS plan. Many federal officials are backing her call for an extension.
The second change, which also would require congressional approval, would exempt the federal employes' Thrift Savings Plan, a recently established tax-deferred program, from tax rules that cover similar 401(k) plans in the private sector. The proposed exemption would allow upper-income ($50,000 plus) federal workers to continue to make maximum tax-deferred contributions -- now 10 percent of salary or $7,000 per year -- to the thrift investment plan, even if lower-income workers don't invest as much of their salary. Under existing law, the percentage of salary that upper-income workers may contribute to a tax-deferred plan cannot be more than 2 percentage points above the average percentage contributed by lower-income workers.
Legislation to exempt the thrift plan from those rules has been introduced and key members of Congress are quietly seeking a way to get the proposal enacted.
Unless September living costs dropped, retired federal workers, military retirees and recipients of Social Security benefits are due a January cost-of-living adjustment of at least 4 percent. That amount could be higher if last month's inflation rate -- which will be published in the next few days -- went up. These raises are based on the rise in the consumer price index from the third quarter of the previous year to this year's third quarter. They go into effect automatically in January, unless blocked by Congress.
Federal workers who are injured or disabled on the job and get benefits from FECA (the Federal Employees Compensation Act) are tentatively due a 3.6 percent raise next year. But they are on a different inflation-measuring cycle and the final amount of their increase won't be known until December's inflation rate is published.
Federal retirees' checks in the Washington area average about $12,700 per year.