Katherine Archuleta

Office of Personnel Management Director Katherine Archuleta calls phased retirement a "win-win" for federal employees and agencies. (Christopher Dilts, Obama for America / November 21, 2011)

Bob Fireovid, a national program leader at the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Beltsville, has been planning to retire in late September.

But now that the Office of Personnel Management has finally released its long-awaited guidelines on phased retirement, the 63-year-old Greenbelt man might reconsider.

Beginning in November, retirement-eligible federal employees may cut their hours to part time and begin drawing a portion of their pensions while sticking around to mentor their younger colleagues.

Fireovid says his supervisor has agreed that the program would be great for him, and for the USDA. He's the agency's national program leader for bioproducts and biorefining, and he says there's no one who can step into his shoes.

Now that phased retirement is an option, Fireovid says, he plans to talk it over with his wife.

President Barack Obama signed phased retirement into law in 2012. The idea was to help the government retain institutional memory as growing numbers of the federal workforce reach retirement.

The OPM was supposed to release guidelines for the program at the beginning of this year. With workers and the unions that represent them growing anxious, lawmakers including Rep. Elijah E. Cummings wrote a letter last month urging OPM Director Katherine Archuleta to release them soon.

OPM officials said Thursday that the final guidelines took a lot of coordination.

"There were hundreds of comments that came in," said Ken Zawodny, associate director of retirement services at OPM. "They had to be reviewed and dissected ... to ensure we had covered everything and to work out different regulations pertaining to employment status and retirement status."

The final guidelines closely resembled a previous draft. The National Active and Retired Federal Employees Association said some of its concerns weren't addressed.

"[They] gave agencies too much leeway to waive mentoring," NARFE lobbyist Jessica Klement said. She said the section on mentoring should have been "just a little more specific."

"Especially because mentoring programs in place now aren't really being utilized," she said, there should be "just more guidance to determine mentoring activities."

While the OPM says agencies should address phased retirement with unions, chief human capital officer Mark Reinhold said the "agencies have a lot of discretion in how it's actually implemented."

"Employees eligible can do so only with the agreement of the agency," he said. "Once the policy is in place, it will start with a conversation between the employee and supervisor."

Under the new guidelines, agencies are supposed to come up with criteria to determine who will get to use phased retirement. Phased retirees will be expected to mentor other employees at least 20 percent of the time.

"I think the 20 percent figure is pretty good," Klement said. "If I was trying to train my replacement, it would probably take more than 20 percent of my time, but everyone is different."

The OPM wouldn't estimate how many people may use phased retirement. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office estimated in 2012 that 1,000 employees per year would use the program for three years before retiring completely.

Archuleta called the guidelines a "win-win" for agencies and federal employees.

"It's another forward-thinking policy," she said.

Cummings, a Baltimore Democrat, said he was pleased that the guidelines were finalized.

"I expect that phased retirement will be an invaluable tool for agencies to ensure the preservation of institutional knowledge and the readiness of a new generation of skilled workers as the baby boomers become eligible for retirement," he said in a statement.

Klement said many members of the NARFE, most of whom are retired, say they wish they had had the option of phased retirement before they retired. Others have told her that if the program weren't available by a certain date, they would retire without it.

"Not many 55-year-olds are ready to go into full-time retirement," she said. "This is a way for them to test it out.

"I think different people are going to have different reasons for doing phased retirement."

Fireovid says he will reconsider his plans to retire in September. But if he waits until November, he says, staff shortages in human resources at USDA could delay his retirement even longer.

"There hasn't been a good record of having paperwork done for these things," he said.

dmking@baltsun.com

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