Memo to Washington area wives:

If your middle-aged husband mumbles lovingly in his sleep about Vera, you may want to consider spicing up your relationship, marriage counseling or a good divorce lawyer.

Unless . . .

Unless, that is, your night-talker toils for Uncle Sam. If he's a federal employee, odds are the Vera of his dreams is something--not someone--at the office. VERA, not Vera. Big difference in wonky Washington.

In this town of alphabet-soup abbreviations, VERA isn't a woman's name. VERA stands for "voluntary early retirement authority." VERA can be the answer to middle-aged feds' dreams--a chance to depart with honor (and a pension) much earlier than expected.

Actually, VERA applies to women and men. The lead-in to this column was just a cheap trick to lure you in.

To qualify for VERA, a federal employee must be at least age 50 with 20 years of service or be any age with 25 years of service. It helps to have a boss who loves you and wants to make you happy or who hates you and wants to make you disappear.

VERA is a dream vehicle for lots of people.

Unfortunately, a recent change in VERA rules has confused many feds who think, incorrectly, that early retirement is now available for the asking. That has caused problems in some agencies where employees who bring up early retirement are told to hush up and get back to work.

Here's the truth about VERA:

Many feds are misinterpreting recent congressional action that maintains the status quo on early retirement. Some feds think Congress widened the early-retirement door. What it did was guarantee that early retirement remains a management option.

Although most government workers are now under the Federal Employees Retirement System, most of those who are at or close to retirement age are under the older Civil Service Retirement System. Workers under CSRS are the ones most likely to qualify for early retirement, as in VERA.

Under regular CSRS rules, an employee can retire at 55 with 30 years of service, at 60 with 20 years of service or at 62 with five years of service. Annuities begin immediately and are indexed to inflation. Benefits are based on length of service and highest three-year average salary. Someone retiring at 55 with 30 years, for example, would get a starting annuity equal to about 55 percent of final salary.

VERA makes possible early retirement. Those who take early retirement qualify for immediate pensions, indexed to inflation, but annuities are reduced 2 percent for each year short of age 55. For many feds, especially those with better private-sector jobs waiting, the option is most attractive.

For decades, early retirement has been an agency option. The agency decided whether to offer early retirement and to whom. Agencies generally excluded most workers--by grade, location or occupation--from taking early retirement.

Two years ago, the government lost a court case: Excluding some employees from early retirement was deemed discriminatory. That stopped the VERA program in its tracks because no agency wants to open the early-retirement doors to all eligible workers.

To protect the VERA program--that is, to allow agencies to continue to target early-outs to specific workers--Congress passed legislation. But the legislation was due to expire Oct. 1. If the legislation had expired, any agency offering early-outs would have to make them available to anybody eligible. That, officials say, would have killed the VERA program in most if not all agencies.

What Congress did last month--as part of the Treasury, Postal Service, general government appropriations bill--was to make permanent early-out authority with the understanding that agencies (not employees) will decide who gets an early-retirement offer.

Many workers heard there was a change in VERA rules and thought that the door was opening to all.

What happened--which is typical in Washington--was that nothing changed. But it took an act of Congress and President Clinton's signature to guarantee that nothing changed. In this case, VERA rules.

Bottom line: If your agency cranks up an early-out program--and many will--you have the right to ask for one. But rumors notwithstanding, your agency doesn't have to give you early retirement even if it is downsizing, you meet the age-service requirements and you are hot to trot.

Hence, VERA is still out there--but only as dream for most feds.

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

Thursday, Nov. 4, 1999