Although the government has dangled early-out offers before 11,480 workers this year, preliminary data from agencies indicate relatively few are taking advantage of the chance to retire much earlier than they planned -- in some cases as young as age 43 -- on immediate (but sometimes reduced) pensions.

Normally, about one in every six workers takes the early-out bait. So far this year, only about one of every eight is pulling the plug early, based on available (but incomplete) reports to agencies.

Officials don't know what, if anything, the low acceptance rate means. Some speculate that employees may be staying because the offers come at a time when the non-federal job market in many areas is tightening. Others think that employees may be holding out to see if Congress will sweeten the early retirement offers, although that is unlikely.

Rep. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) has introduced a bill that would give Defense Department civilians a pension bonus sweetener -- adding an extra five years of credit to their age or service time -- if they will leave early. The bill doesn't appear to be going anywhere, but personnel officials say many employees seem to be delaying early retirement decisions in hopes that the legislation will become law.

Congress first authorized early outs in 1973 to help the Defense Department trim its civilian work force after the Vietnam War. That year the Defense Department offered any of its eligible civilian workers the chance to take early retirement. About 13,000 of the approximately 14,400 government workers who took early retirement came from Army, Navy, Air Force or other Defense agencies. Since then, about 3,100 workers take early retirement each year.

Some officials believe the early-out acceptance rate will jump when August retirement numbers are tabulated. Because of the current budget impasse, the status of the 50/50 lump-sum pension payment formula is in doubt. Many employees may have retired at the end of August to meet the deadline for ensuring that they get the option should Congress eliminate it or change the payout formula.

Of more than 700 workers eligible in the first-round of early retirements this year, agencies report only 91 takers so far. Early retirement means qualifying for immediate benefits if the worker is at least age 50 with 20 years of service, or any age with 25 years in government. Normally the earliest that employees can retire on immediate benefits is at age 55 with 30 years' service; age 60 with 20 years'; or age 62 with five years' service.

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