Downsizing has reduced the number of personnel specialists available to help federal workers get the most from their benefits package.

Buyouts and early retirements also have taken away some of the best, most experienced people in the shrinking field of human resources, which provides counseling to workers on health and life insurance and retirement planning.

There are fewer well-qualified people at a time when the changing nature of the civil service work force requires more expert assistance than ever before. The current life insurance open season is a case in point. Some federal workers complain that going to their benefits office for help is not much help.

The number of federal workers who need expert career guidance is at an all-time high, although the number of government employees has been trimmed to Kennedy administration levels. Most civil servants are now under a retirement program -- the Federal Employees Retirement System -- that, like private-sector plans, requires planning, hands-on decisions and financial input from employees early in their careers.

Only about 40 percent of federal employees remain under the older Civil Service Retirement System. From an employee's point of view, CSRS operates pretty much on automatic pilot. For a majority of career employees under CSRS, the civil service benefit will account for most of their retirement income.

Benefits under CSRS are based on length of service and salary. Under CSRS, an employee retiring at 55 with 30 years of service will get an immediate benefit (immediately indexed to inflation, regardless of age at retirement) equal to about 55 percent of final salary. The amount will go up with inflation. A worker retiring after 40 years of service will get a pension equal to 80 percent of final pay.

Do your time and do well, and Uncle Sam will take care of you.

But under FERS, workers need to do more to prepare for retirement, and in most agencies, they are doing it with less in-house help. Agencies increasingly are relying on outside experts and private contractors (many of them former civil servants) to conduct seminars on benefits and retirement planning.

The FERS civil service annuity is about half of what is guaranteed under CSRS, and a FERS annuity gets less-generous cost of living adjustments. Under FERS, COLAs don't begin until age 62. Unlike CSRS employees, FERS employees pay the full Social Security tax and qualify for Social Security benefits.

FERS employees can invest -- because they need to invest -- more in the thrift savings plan, the government's 401(k) plan. They can put in as much as 10 percent of salary (and qualify for a matching contribution of up to 5 percent). Workers under CSRS can contribute only 5 percent and get no federal match. The 401(k) plan is a nice feature for CSRS workers, but it is a must investment for FERS employees who want to maximize retirement income.

Rick Garnitz, president of LifeSpan Services, says federals workers and agencies don't begin retirement planning soon enough. His firm, based in Decatur, Ga., runs retirement and benefit seminars for federal agencies. Other organizations in the business include Government Retirement Benefits Inc., of Alexandria, and the National Institute of Transition Planning, in Rockville. GRB's Joe Richardson and NITP's Tammy Flanagan agree that benefits planning has become more complicated for more people and should begin much earlier.

Simply "running the numbers," experts say, isn't enough. Federal workers need a long-range plan for retirement, and they should consult with their spouses about the plan. "If you like your federal job but know you will have to work for additional income after retiring, why retire?" Garnitz says.

At 9 a.m. tomorrow on WUST radio (1120 AM), Garnitz will talk about the most common mistakes federal workers make when planning for retirement and how they can avoid them.

Life Insurance

At 10 a.m. tomorrow on WUST, the Office of Personnel Management's Ellen Tunstall and Laura Lawrence will explain what options federal workers (and some retirees) have during the current open enrollment period for the Federal Employees Group Life Insurance program. The open season is a rare chance for workers (but not retirees) to enroll in the program or increase their optional coverage. It also is a chance for certain retirees -- mostly those younger than 70 -- to "freeze" the face value of their optional coverage at current levels.

Many healthy federal workers can buy cheaper insurance outside FEGLI. But for those who are older, or in very poor health, the program is a godsend.

Mike Causey's e-mail address is causeym@washpost.com

Friday, June 11, 1999