The National Active and Retired Federal Employees Association (NARFE) has long been one of the largest organizations for feds. Now it’s trying to be one of the most visible, too.
Richard G. Thissen, NARFE’s new president, is using that increased visibility to fight what is developing as one of the most significant challenges to NARFE’s members in recent years — a congressional plan that would decimate the most popular employee retirement fund.
Since Thissen took over as NARFE’s president in November, he has participated in an American Postal Workers Union pep rally, joined with 60 national organizations in a “Grand Alliance to Save Our Public Postal Service” and placed greater emphasis on meeting with other federal employee leaders.
He wants to be sure everyone knows federal employee groups “are in this together,” he said during an interview.
“Because we are facing these unprecedented threats, I just think we need to be out there and to work with everybody who has a common core issue with us,” he added. “If people are noticing we’re taking a strong advocacy stand, I’m happy to take credit for that. We just want to make sure we’re out there in front because of everything that is coming down the line at us.”
Thissen, 69, was a 26-year federal employee before retiring from the Army Department. Among his jobs was inspecting nuclear and nerve gas weapons. A native of Fort Dodge, Iowa, he was NARFE’s treasurer before winning the presidency. NARFE has almost 235,000 members, including some who are not eligible for union membership. About 90 percent of its members are retirees, from all across the government. Twenty-five percent to 30 percent are postal retirees or employees.
“We think they (federal employees) should join us in addition to joining their union,” he said. “We’re in for the total life cycle,” protecting federal employees while working and in retirement.
NARFE leaders always made sure their members’ voices were heard. But Thissen said that after he became president, “I’ve made it a priority to get together with all of our partners to be as strong as possible to meet the challenges that we’ve got today. . . . This new budget added some things we weren’t even sure were coming.”
There was a big surprise.
In the Republicans’ House Budget Committee proposal issued last month was a scheme that the Thrift Savings Plan (TSP) says would render its most popular federal employee retirement fund worthless by changing the interest rate calculation of the G-Fund (Government Securities Investment Fund).
“We weren’t expecting that,” Thissen said.
The surprise could shake any complacency that might have set in even among a group that pays close attention to benefits — those close to retirement.
Thissen told NARFE’s legislative conference last month that it is remarkable that a recent NARFE focus group found “those nearing retirement saw no potential threat to their pay and benefits.”
Those folks “were confident their compensation and future was safe and steady, that they would be grandfathered,” he added. “The thing is, reality dictates otherwise.”
Reality now is striking, in the form of the House budget resolution. The hit on the G-Fund could change as it goes through the legislative process, but just its formal proposal should be enough to arouse the complacent.
It might be the successful efforts to maintain federal retiree benefits that resulted in NARFE members in some ways being “almost our own worst enemies,” Thissen said. Because of those efforts, “retirees really haven’t lost anything since 1993,” when delayed cost-of-living adjustments meant retirees received reduced annuities. That long period with no direct hit on annuitants apparently led some to a false sense of safety even as current and future working feds were forced to sacrifice in various ways.
The G-Fund won’t be a safe bet if the TSP hit is approved. If that happens, NARFE would recommend its members put their money in a different TSP vehicle. Some of TSP’s L (Lifecycle) Funds also are invested in the G-Fund, but the TSP would automatically reallocate those investments without individuals needing to take any action.
The average age of NARFE members is about 75. Sometimes they have trouble understanding why the organization pays so much attention to things that apply only to the 9.7 percent who are current employees.
Until recently, Thissen would tell them, “the main attacks have been on current employees.”
Now, the old folks can join that party, too.
Previous columns by Joe Davidson are available at wapo.st/JoeDavidson.