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Meet a federal phased-retirement pioneer

Ford Peatross, director of the Center for Architecture, Design and Engineering in the Prints and Photographs Division, examines architecture items in the center vault, May 21. (Shawn Miller – Library of Congress)
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Ford Peatross has cut back to working only 20 hours a week for the next 12 months, not much time to pass on a lifetime of experience in how to acquire, organize, preserve, appraise, lend and publish historic architectural and engineering documents.

But otherwise Peatross, at age 67 and with nearly 40 years of working for the Library of Congress, would simply have taken that knowledge along with him into retirement.

“I’ve seen it time and again, when someone walks out the door, so much goes with them,” said Peatross, director of the Center for Architecture, Design and Engineering in the Prints and Photographs division.

Instead, he is one of a small group of Library employees pioneering the concept of phased retirement for federal workers. Nearly three years after it was enacted into law, the program is just now starting, and even at that for only the tiniest fraction of those potentially eligible government-wide.

[Phased retirement officially starts for feds, but don’t count on it]

The way Peatross sees it, his institutional knowledge is a public asset, but “it was sort of trapped in here to an extent,” he said, pointing to his head.

The intent of phased retirement is to allow retirement-eligible employees to ease into that next period of life while staying involved with their careers and passing along crucial knowledge to their replacements–they must spend a fifth of their time in mentoring. Phased retirees work half-time and receive proportionate salaries along with half of the annuities they have accumulated to that point. When they later retire fully, their annuities will include a boost reflecting the part-time service.

The option has been so long in development that it gives new meaning to the word “phased.” The law authorizing it passed in mid-2012, followed by proposed rules from the Office of Personnel Management a year later and final rules a year after that. OPM allowed agencies to offer the arrangement—it is voluntary for both the employee and management—as of last November.

However, individual agencies still had to set their own policies on standards to consider applications, the length of the arrangements for those approved, procedures for changing jobs, and more. Several said at the time that they expected it would be sometime into 2015 before they would be ready, if they would allow it at all. OPM meanwhile said that carrying out phased retirement “is fully under the discretion of each agency.”

Peatross is one of eight Library employees who have moved into phased retirement over the last several months, with three more to follow in the summer. As it prepared for the launch, the Library saw no other agencies that have allowed phased retirement, said human resources director Dennis Hanratty; there has been no announcement to the contrary by any other agency or by the OPM.

“We’re sort of the guinea pigs,” Hanratty said, noting that the Library will brief other agencies through an OPM-sponsored webinar in June.

Jessica Klement, legislative director of the National Active and Retired Federal Employees Association, said that while the organization is pleased that the Library is moving ahead, it “remains extremely disappointed that agencies appear to be dragging their feet on this commonsense and money saving initiative. We’ve heard from several NARFE members who opted not to retire when eligible in the hopes of utilizing phased retirement; most of them have since retired because phased retirement still isn’t an option at their agency,” she said in an e-mail.

Each Library phased retiree was allowed up to a one-year period, with a mutual option to extend it another six months, starting at the time of their choice within a six-month window. Those and other terms may change, depending on the experience with the first group.

“We view phased retirement as a systematic means to transfer knowledge from our most experienced staff to our less experienced staff,” Hanratty said. “We thought a 12- to 18-month time frame should be sufficient to transfer knowledge—not every piece of knowledge, but what a person needs to know in that job and what a person needs to do to be successful.”

One motivation for allowing phased retirement is the pending “retirement wave” and resulting brain drain. The average age of federal workers is 47, with 45 percent age 50 or older. According to a recent Government Accountability Office report, 14 percent of current workers already are eligible for retirement and 31 percent of them will be eligible in four years.

The Library’s workforce of about 3,000 is even older, with an average age of 50 and 25 percent already retirement-eligible.

That’s one reason the Library was aggressive in putting together its program, Hanratty said, starting while the concept still was pending in Congress. That involved a planning team working across agency components, consultations with unions representing Library employees, providing notices, briefings and counseling for employees, and laying out what the mentoring requirement would involve.

An application window was offered in late 2014 and it took several months after that to review the requests and revise the payroll system before anyone could actually start.

Some employees may have been reluctant to apply—only 13 did—because the concept is new and the law’s eligibility standards and the effects on pay and benefits are complex. Also, applicants need to be committed to retiring in the near future; while phased retirees could ask to move back to full-time work, the Library made clear that they should not expect management to approve it.

“If you start as a phased retiree, you’re on the path to retirement,” Hanratty said. “This is not a trial balloon for retirement.”

That was fine by Peatross, who was ready to ditch a daily commute stretching up to an hour. He now does it only twice a week, working 10-hour days among two centuries’ worth of design plans for everything from the first skyscraper in New York to the tunnel running under Constitution Avenue. He spends most of those hours organizing information for better use—by someone else—in the future, and another two hours briefing his replacement, who already is in place.

“I agreed to stay on another year half-time to do that knowledge transfer,” he said. “There’s so much to do. I give her the memo [about a past decision] and tell her what it really meant. I give the context around the situation . . . how it happened, how it almost didn’t happen, what you would have done with more experience.”

“It’s not just about the way things are done, it’s the way things are done at the Library, because we have our own culture,” he said.

Also on the list are introductions to donors, colleagues at other agencies, and outside organizations involved with the Library’s work.

Helena Zinkham, chief of the Prints and Photographs division and Peatross’s supervisor, said that for a new employee, however well qualified, “It’s not just written down in a book, what you need to do.”

“There’s a lot of talk of succession planning; it’s one of those golden rules we all salute,” she said. “But carving out the time to make it happen is difficult. This gives us a positive structure. I feel the program bought us another year with him.”

Said Peatross, “This is the way it should always happen.”

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