Publisher's Perspective

With apologies to the Sixties flower children, what if they held a federal retirement benefit and nobody came?

That’s basically where we are with phased retirement, a rare change in federal employee benefits that was bipartisan and touted as a win-win by just about everyone involved with federal government management.

To recap, phased retirement authority will allow retirement-eligible employees under the standard age and service combinations that require at least 20 years of service – although not those subject to mandatory retirement or eligible for disability retirement, among certain other exceptions – to ask to switch to half-time work. If their agency approves, they are then to receive the proportionate salary and half of the annuity they have accumulated to that point.

The win for the government comes in where, instead of losing experienced employees to full retirement, it continues to benefit from their expertise. The win for the employees comes in where they are not forced to decide between the extremes of continued full-time working or full retirement. Instead they can keep a hand in their careers and take home more than they would as a retiree, while relieving some of the hassles of full-time work such as commuting and the time commitment.

Phased retirement was authorized in law in mid-2012. Then it took a year for OPM to put out proposed rules. Then it took another year for OPM to finalize those rules. Then three months for those rules to take effect. Phased retirement has been formally allowed since last November.

So, how many individuals and agencies have taken advantage of this win-win? According to a well-placed official, as of a recent date, none.

What’s the holdup? Well, the final rules required individual agencies to issue detailed policies, including on: who would review employees’ requests; what standards they would use for approving or denying them; how long any approved phased retirement periods would last; how requests of phased retirees to go back to work full-time would be handled; and exactly what meets the requirement that phased retirees spend at least a fifth of their working time mentoring other employees.

A related issue is that some of these matters are subject to bargaining, or at least discussions, with employee unions. The unions say they’re not being difficult about this, that their goal is to make sure that the benefit is available as widely as possible. Still, any sort of formal labor-management process takes time, too.

Whether those are reasons or excuses for the inaction is a matter of personal opinion.

One other factor sometimes mentioned is that no agency wants to be first out of the gate. Because almost certainly, there will be questions about how they go about it, there will be mistakes made, there will be unhappy people. That usually translates into scrutiny from OMB, hearings on Capitol Hill, negative news stories, GAO and/or IG investigations, and so on. Agencies might well be thinking it’s best to let someone else go through that first, and learn what to avoid.

Most agencies have said nothing about the status of phased retirement planning there, while the few that have made comments have been notably fuzzy about their plans. For example, SSA has left open the door for not using the authority at all. That’s notable because that’s one agency that has been prominent in using a pre-existing authority to bring back retirees for certain periods without the usual offset between salary and annuity that applies to rehired retirees. In other words, SSA has used that authority for exactly the kind of succession management that phased retirement was designed to provide.

A larger issue may be that the temporary rehiring-without-offset authority might be enough to meet those needs, not just at SSA but at other agencies. That’s especially possible now that retirement figures continue to show that the much-feared retirement “wave” is looking more like a steady—and thus, manageable—flow.

All that aside, there’s still an expectation that in the coming months, some agencies will announce that they have their ducks in a row and are ready to allow phased retirement in some situations. This could notably include DoD, the largest employer.

But even then, it’s yet to be seen how widely it will be used. It’s hard to say the signs so far have been encouraging.