For the past year, the Office of Personnel Management has been working on regulations that will allow older federal workers to phase into retirement.
The idea is that these employees would continue to work part time, collect a partial pension — and pass on their knowledge and experience to the next generation of federal workers.
Many older workers are eagerly awaiting the program's launch.
"A lot of retirement-eligible workers don't feel ready to retire," said Jessica Klement, legislative director of the National Active and Retired Federal Employees Association. "They are nervous about what Congress will do with their pay and benefits. This way, they can dip their toe in the shallow end of the retirement pool."
Nearly 75,000 federal workers have retired in the first six months of this year, up 31 percent from a year ago. It is this sort of brain drain that prompted Congress last year to authorize phased retirement.
The Office of Personnel Management published proposed rules in June and finished collecting feedback last week. The federal agency is reviewing comments to see what changes, if any, are needed, said Kenneth J. Zawodny Jr., associate director of retirement services there.
Zawodny said the early comments he received from agencies and individuals fall into two categories: "When is it going to be in place? And how can I sign up for it?"
The goal is to make phased retirement available this year, Zawodny said.
But it won't be simply a matter of signing up. Though phased retirement is voluntary for workers, agencies get the final say on whether to offer it, based on their needs. And employees subject to mandatory retirement, such as law enforcement agents and firefighters, won't be eligible.
Zawodny said he's not sure how many agencies will offer phased retirement. "Most agencies are waiting to see what the final regulations are going to look like," he said.
But unions expect many takers among their members.
"I got inquiries from some of our members that work here at the IRS," said George Schlaffer, an IRS revenue agent and president of Chapter 62 of the National Treasury Employees Union in Baltimore.
Some are eligible to retire but either can't afford to or don't want to quit work entirely, Schlaffer said.
"Some people would be bored in retirement," he said.
Switching to part time always has been an option, but that might not bring in enough income to make ends meet, particularly for those with children in college, Schlaffer said.
"They will have more cash coming in [under phased retirement] than if strictly going part time," he said.
Schlaffer, 64, who has worked 40 years with the IRS, said he might consider phased retirement after his two daughters finish school.
Under the rules proposed by OPM, phased retirement would be available to employees who have worked full time for the government in the previous three years and who are eligible for immediate retirement. Based on federal formulas, the earliest someone could phase into retirement is age 55.
Phased retirees would work a half-time schedule, allowing them to collect half their pay along with 50 percent of their annuity.
"It's going to be an agency call on how they do it," Zawodny said. For example, he said, an agency might have a phased retiree work one week and take the next week off.
Phased retirees would continue to accrue retirement benefits for their part-time work, and their pensions would be recalculated when they fully retire.
Participants would be required to mentor colleagues for at least 20 percent of their time on the job. It would be up to the agency to determine how this requirement is fulfilled.
Phased retirees could go back to full-time work if their agency approved. However, they would not be able to phase into retirement again.
Some groups have asked the agency to make even more workers eligible for the program.
"In this time of austerity budgeting, phased retirement should be extended to as many retirement-eligible employees as possible," Joseph A. Beaudoin, national president of the National Active and Retired Federal Employees Association, wrote to OPM. "With many federal agencies in a hiring freeze, phased retirement may be the difference in whether or not a position stays filled, at least part time."
Phased retires would participate in the government's health plan as if they were full-time workers. But worker groups asked the OPM to make it clear that phased retirees also would be able to participate in dental, vision and long-term care insurance, as well as in flexible spending accounts.
The National Treasury Employees Union asked the OPM to include a provision that would allow employees to appeal a decision by their employer on phased retirement.
Some younger workers, though, have raised concerns about phased retirement.
Joseph Flynn, national vice president with the American Federation of Government Employees in Ellicott City, said he has heard complaints that the program will prevent young and mid-career employees from being promoted.
"A vacancy usually means there is a position that will be posted and that means someone at a lower level is going to move up," Flynn said. "If that vacancy doesn't occur, there is no upward mobility."
But Schlaffer said he doesn't think that will be a problem.
"Most managers you talk to say they wish the older people would hang around," he said.
A brain drain?
The number of federal workers retiring this year is up 31 percent, fueling concerns of institutional memory loss
January 21,479 22,187
February 6,415 20,374
March 7,090 10,183
April 6,770 7,059
May 7,523 7,084
June 7,814 8,015
Total: 57,091 74,902
Source: Office of Personnel Management