When Service Time is Not Service Time

A federal retirement benefit involves a straight-forward calculation based on high-three salary level and service time. Unless . . .

Wait a minute, you say: there’s no “unless” about it. Yes, the formula differs between FERS and CSRS and yes, there are some complications, but the formula is the formula.

Unless Congress changes it.

For years, any potential changes in the formula have focused on the salary component: to use the highest five (or four, or some other number) consecutive salary years rather than the highest three years. Depending on a person’s salary history, that could make a difference in the value of the annuity ranging from a little bit to a little bit more.

After years of inaction on that idea, some in Congress are turning instead to the other component: years of service. In contrast to the policy governing unused sick leave, where retiree gets credit for time that was not actually worked, the idea is to not give credit for time that was actually worked.

This has shown itself in several ways, including in a proposal that passed the House in the prior Congress, and that recently cleared the House again, to authorize the Veterans Affairs department to reduce a VA’s employee’s pension if they were convicted of a felony which influenced their job performance.

According to a summary of that bill by its sponsors, “The employee would be entitled to advance notice, an opportunity to respond to the order, and the opportunity to appeal the Secretary’s final decision before the Director of the Office of Personnel Management. This appeal would have to be completed within 30 business days after the appeal has been filed by the employee.”

This authority likely would be used rarely, even if—as is widely expected—such a change eventually would be extended government-wide in the name of consistency. Very few federal employees commit felonies that influenced their job performance. And there would be appeal rights even then.

But that masks the significant policy change that lies underneath: the government would be able to declare actual working time null and void.

If that bill were the beginning and end of this idea, it might be written off as just one more overheated reaction to the VA patient scheduling and care scandal. But as these things tend to do, the underlying idea already has spread from one context to another.

Specifically, a bill that has passed another House committee would deny service credit for retirement purposes for time in which a federal employee spent more than 80 percent of their working hours in “official time” status. That is time allowed under federal labor law for employees to perform certain union-related duties—such as representing employees in grievances—but not others—such as recruiting new members.

Official time has long been a target of conservatives who argue that federal workers should spend their time doing federal work, not union work. Unions consider it their recompense for having to represent all employees in a bargaining unit regardless of whether they pay dues.

This particular twist likely would apply more broadly than the other. How much more broadly is an open question: the latest statistics on any use of official time are five years out of date, and they don’t break down how many employees spend what percentage of their working hours in official time status.

The AFGE union, which represents many VA employees, says for example that about 350 employees there are on official time status full-time—about one in 1,000 of the department’s employees. Presumably some others there are on at least 80 percent official time status, but how many, and whether the same pattern holds true at other agencies, is simply not known.

Unions argue that such a change would dissuade employees from serving as union officials, and that is certainly true, at least regarding being on official time a majority of the time.

The broader question, though, is the precedent that would be set. Here’s how a statement from opponents of the bill put it:

“There are many kinds of legal, sanctioned work that Republicans in Congress could treat similarly. They could deny retirement benefits for employees who engage in activities they oppose, including climate science, election monitoring, federal criminal defense, anti-trust law enforcement, among others.”


That’s probably overheated too. Unless . . .