Thomas Hinson, a Social Security Administration program analyst with 34 years of government service, planned to retire in another few years. At 59, he figured there was no rush. But then the 101st Congress got into the act.
As a way to cut government spending, legislators voted to suspend for five years Hinson's option to get part of his pension in a lump-sum payment when he retired. Many employees, unions and government officials doubt the option will ever be reinstated.
Under the terms of the Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1990, most of the 2.4 million federal employees eligible to retire have until Nov. 30 to do so and still receive the popular lump-sum payment.
Personnel managers throughout the government said they have noticed an increase in the number of people who have inquired about retirement procedures, but do not have precise figures for those who have decided to take the option.
At the Health and Human Services Department, which employs 120,000, there has been a marked increase in the number of retirees. In October 1989, 69 employees retired. In October 1990, an estimated 242 employees retired, according to Joseph Colantuoni, assistant director for personnel and payroll at HHS.
The Office of Personnel Management yesterday reported a 24.7 percent increase in the number of employees who retired during the month of September this year, compared to September 1989. But only a 7.5 percent increase was noted in October. While numbers are not complete for November, so far more than twice as many people have decided to retire this month (2,600) as in November 1989 (1,159).
OPM officials said they expected the numbers to be greater and attributed some of the difference to the last-minute decision by Congress and general confusion over the federal budget this year.
The decision to retire early and take the lump-sum payments -- one received shortly after retirement and one a year later -- should be made after employees carefully consider their financial situations, said financial analysts and department retirement officials.
For Hinson, the decision was made after hours of figuring out what he might do with the payment and what it would leave him to live on month to month.
"You don't just take off 34 years like you take off an overcoat," said Hinson, who works at the SSA headquarters in Baltimore. "Especially if you're proud of what you have done."
OPM Director Constance Berry Newman said she hopes people do not retire early soley based on the money available now. "I just think people ought to take the option based on what it is they expect out of life in their work," she said.
Under the lump-sum option, employees will receive two payments, both taxable as income, equal to the amount they have contributed to the pension plan. Taking the payment reduces a retiree's regular annuity checks by 5 to 20 percent, depending on age and length of service.
The payments can be as high as $100,000 for top-level employees with decades of service. The average check, before being split in two and taxed, is about $32,000.
The payment could be reduced by as much as one-third of its value after federal, state and local taxes are deducted, said Robert Normanie, legislative representative of the National Association of Retired Federal Employees.
Despite some of the drawbacks, the plan is so popular that up to 80 percent of those employees who have been eligible to collect the payment have chosen to do so.
"I'm getting tons of calls," said Josh Neiman, legislative director of the National Federation of Federal Employees. "I think there's a common misperception that if they don't take their lump sum, they'll lose their annuity."
Employees "think it's a big chunk of money, a bigger chunk than they have ever seen," said Neiman. "But when you spend it, it's gone."
The new law includes several exceptions: U.S. Armed Forces or Defense Department employees who, before Dec. 1, were called to active duty or performing essential services for Operation Desert Shield in the Persian Gulf have until Nov. 30, 1991, to retire and qualify to collect the lump-sum payment.
Any person who retires with a life-threatening affliction or other critical medical condition or certain persons who are separated from government service involuntarily can collect at any time.
The Office of Management and Budget and the Congressional Budget Office calculate that eliminating the lump-sum option will save the government $1 billion in 1991 and $8.1 billion over five years.