The long-awaited authority for federal workers to phase into retirement officially begins Thursday, but it is still unclear how soon, how widely and under what conditions agencies will give their employees that opportunity.
The government now can accept applications for the hybrid arrangement designed to allow retirement-eligible employees to cut back while keeping a hand in their work. Phased retirees are to work half time while collecting half of their salaries and half of the annuities they have accumulated to that point—and spending a fifth of their working time mentoring their successors.
However, several of the largest agencies have told their employees they will have to wait at least until sometime next year to seek phased retirement. In other agencies, employees mostly are hearing crickets.
“It’s frustrating when my own agency can’t give me a timeline of when to expect phased retirement or if it is even an option,” Alexis Slebodnick, a retirement-eligible computer forensics analyst with Immigration and Customs Enforcement in Sterling, Va., said in an e-mail.
Gretchen Campbell, a retirement-eligible senior attorney at the Environmental Protection Agency, said by e-mail, “Absolutely no information has been provided to employees by EPA management. . . .doesn’t sound like EPA has any plan at this point and lots of folks this was aimed at are leaving because they have no idea if or when this will ever happen at EPA.”
“I’ve been following this closely, this is something I’d very much like to do,” Jean Rigdon, a medical technologist at the Veterans Affairs medical center in Jackson, Miss., said in a phone interview. “I have been actively seeking information, but so far, nothing. I asked what is my next step and they said wait, we’ve got to get guidance.”
One definite thing she was told, Rigdon said, was that if phased retirement is ever to be in the cards for her, it would take three layers of approval.
An EPA spokesperson said the agency “will be sending a memo to employees soon describing our policies for offering phased retirement.” The Department of Homeland Security, the parent department of ICE, did not respond to a request for comment. A spokeswoman for VA said she was looking into the agency’s policy.
Jessica Klement, legislative director of the National Active and Retired Federal Employees Association, said that the organization sent an e-mail this week to more than 100 members who have expressed a particular interest in phased retirement asking what they have been told. None replied that the option will be available to them anytime soon, she said.
“It’s either ‘I’ve heard nothing’ or ‘not for a while,’” Klement said. “A common theme is ‘I’m no longer going to wait. I’m going to make my own retirement plans.’ This option has been eagerly anticipated by a portion of the federal workforce but now they’re fed up and making their plans independent of phased retirement.”
One of the most significant changes to federal benefits policies in recent years, phased retirement already has been a long time coming. The Obama administration proposed it in 2010, and two years later Congress approved it as part of an unrelated law. The Office of Personnel Management issued draft rules another year later, and still another year passed before final rules were issued in August. Those rules become effective Thursday.
The rules specified that phased retirement is voluntary for both the worker and the employing agency, and spelled out eligibility policies. For example, employees first must qualify for retirement under one of several combinations of age and years of service, and certain categories are excluded, such as those subject to mandatory retirement. Other guidance addressed benefits issues and how annuities will be recalculated when phased retirees later take full retirement.
“To me, this program is a win-win,” OPM director Katherine Archuleta said in a blog post at the time. “Employees can design a smooth transition into the next phase of their lives, and agencies across government can get a head start on succession planning.”
Many employees agree.
“I feel [phased retirement] serves my personal preferences. It would benefit the agency in terms of not losing experienced personnel and help in mentoring new employees, and therefore would benefit the public as well,” Saul Nathanson, a retirement-eligible Social Security Administration administrative law judge in Charlotte, N.C., said via e-mail.
“I think this is an excellent option both professionally and personally. I will be able to phase out of my job and train the person taking over my work. And I can test the financial waters personally without diving right in,” Lisa Haugen, a management and program analyst with EPA in Lenexa, Kan., said in an e-mail.
“I would like to transition with my replacement and concentrate on mentoring the five employees who want to train to be silviculturists [forest tree cultivators],” Lori Blackburn of the Forest Service in Oregon said in an e-mail. “There is a shortage of certified silviculturists in Forest right now and when I retire there will not be a replacement for me with the depth of skills to mentor. I plan to retire soon and this will be too late.”
An SSA spokesman said that while some employees have expressed interest in phased retirement, “until we make a decision, Social Security is not soliciting applications from our employees.” The Forest Service did not respond to a request for comment.
OPM, the government’s central personnel agency, said in a statement that phased retirement “is fully under the discretion of each agency… agencies are encouraged to implement phased retirement in a manner that best suits both the agency’s and eligible employees’ needs.”
“The timelines for agency implementation of phased retirement may vary widely,” OPM said. “Agencies may still need time to prepare policies and procedures; update payroll and human resources systems; and meet their bargaining obligations.”
Several agencies that said they are not ready have cited the time needed to craft policies that the OPM rules left in their hands. Those include how they will decide on requests, whether they will limit the time phased retirements can last, and what they consider to be mentoring.
The largest, the Defense Department, told its civilian employees in a fact sheet that “there are policy decisions, automation updates, and bargaining unit requirements that will impact when DoD employees may begin to apply. The Department is currently developing implementing guidance and identifying challenges or limitations. The projected date for Department-wide implementation is early calendar year 2015.”
The SSA meanwhile has said it could take longer—if it carries out the program at all. It told employees in an e-mail that management is “working very hard to determine if it is an appropriate program for SSA . . . .If the agency decides to implement a program, it would be sometime in 2015 or later before employees can participate since we must take many preparatory steps and fulfill our labor-management obligations.”
Colleen M. Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, said that “everywhere I go without exception I get asked this question by someone, ‘When is it going to happen?’ Unfortunately, I’ve had to tell them my best guess is that it will be early spring before any agency is ready to do it.”
Kelley said that NTEU has been reaching out to agencies where it has bargaining units to begin negotiations. The union in particular will push for equity so that phased retirement is not made available only to managers and not to front-line employees, for example.
“My concern all along with this is that no [agency] would want to be first and that they would proceed very slowly with this—maybe because they don’t believe in it, maybe because it’s so new,” she said. “We really are pushing this hard. and we want to see it be a reality and not just something that’s been passed but won’t be acted on.”