Reg Jones Expert's View

Gradual, or “phased” retirement, has generated a lot of interest among federal employees for several years and it finally seems to be catching on among political leaders, too.

It was included in the budget the President sent to Congress earlier this year, has already been agreed to by the Democratic-controlled Senate as part of a transportation bill, and recently cleared a committee as a free-standing bill in the Republican-controlled House. That’s about as broad a range of support as you can get in Washington, leading to expectations that phased retirement will be enacted, in one way or another, in the near future.

Here’s how the phased retirement option would work. When you have the age and service needed to retire and have worked full-time for the preceding three years, you could, with your agency’s approval, reduce your work schedule. While the basic idea is that you would work half time, OPM’s regulations could permit alternative percentages of work time, ranging from one-fifth to four-fifths. Once set, the percentage could not be changed even if you transferred to another federal job. While working that reduced schedule, you’d have to spend at least 20 percent of your time in mentoring activities, unless you were granted an exception.

There would be several important restrictions. While serving as a phased retiree, you would be barred from applying disability retirement. Also, some employees would be excluded from the phased retirement option in the first place: law enforcement officers, firefighters, nuclear materials couriers, air traffic controllers, customs and border protection officers, and members of the Capitol Police and Supreme Court Police. That’s because they’re subject to mandatory retirement.

If you qualify and become a phased retiree, having met the age and service requirements to retire, you would lock in your original annuity. Added to it when you fully retire would be the additional annuity you earned as a part-time employee.

While serving as a phased retiree, you’d be able to continue your participation in the federal employee insurance programs. You could also invest in the Thrift Savings Plan and, if you are a CSRS employee, the Voluntary Contributions Program.

If you and your agency agreed, the phased retirement could be terminated and you could return to full-time employment. If that happened, the period when you worked part-time would be treated the way it currently is for all employees who have periods of part-time work in their careers.

So, is this a good idea? OPM’s director, John Berry, says yes, it’s a no-brainer. Others have said that no brains were used in developing this proposal. You be the judge.