Phased-retirement for federal workers is slow to take hold

Many federal workers still waiting for their agencies to offer phased retirement

Greg Havens has put in 32 years of federal service — three years on active duty in the Army and the rest as a flight test engineer. But the St. Mary's County man is not quite ready for full retirement.

Havens, 58, said a phased-retirement program for federal workers would be a perfect fit. Working a part-time schedule would give him the flexibility he needs to care for his mother, who has Alzheimer's disease, while enabling him to pass on some of his expertise to younger colleagues at the Naval Air Warfare Center.

"I needed more time to deal with personal family situations," he said, "and after about 30 years, you're kind of seeing the end, but you're not ready to fully go. ... You think about easing out in a measured manner."

He also liked the idea of the program's mentoring requirement, a way to "work with younger people and shift more responsibilities to them so they can get up to speed."

But three years after Congress authorized phased retirement for the federal workforce — an effort to help the government retain institutional memory as more workers reach retirement age — the option remains unavailable to Havens and most federal workers.

Phased retirement allows full-time employees to work part-time schedules and start to draw retirement benefits. Participants are required to spend one-fifth of their work time mentoring colleagues to pass on their skills and knowledge.

The federal Office of Personnel Management released long-awaited guidelines for the program just over a year ago.

"I know that many agencies and federal employees are eager to take advantage of this new, innovative alternative to traditional retirement," then-OPM Director Katherine Archuleta said in a blog post in August 2014. "This new policy, once it is in effect, will meet the needs of employees while allowing managers to continue to tap into the experience, the wisdom and the judgment of our talented federal workforce."

The Office of Personnel Management becomes aware of an agency's participation only when that agency submits a request on behalf of an employee. Through August, a spokeswoman said, requests had come in from just four agencies: the Library of Congress, NASA, the Department of Education and the Board of Broadcast Governors.

Several groups, including the National Active and Retired Federal Employees Association, the Professional Managers Association and the Senior Executives Association, have expressed frustration over the program's slow rollout.

Agencies are not required to offer phased retirement.

"Not a lot of agencies have chosen to take this up," said John Hatton, deputy legislative director at NARFE. "That's our concern."

Nearly 30 percent of the federal workforce will be eligible for phased retirement by 2017.

"It's a lost opportunity, especially as more and more individuals are eligible for retirement," Hatton said. "You'll have a bit of a brain drain and lose institutional knowledge."

Richard G. Thissen, NARFE's president, said members have been contacting the group to ask when phased retirement might come to their agency. He said some have put off retirement while awaiting details. But many more are not able to wait, and "this is counter to the intent of the law," he said.

The Library of Congress, hoping to avoid an abrupt loss of institutional knowledge, was first in line among federal agencies to allow phased retirement. The library had a pilot program ready to go in November 2014, but processing glitches delayed it until March.

"We did it largely because we have a significant percentage of our workforce that's in the higher age ranges," said John Mondragon, the library's acting director of human resources services. "We have large numbers who ... are recognized as experts in their field. We were concerned that with such a significant percentage of the workforce eligible for retirement and in the upper age ranges, we're at risk of losing that specialized knowledge."

The pilot program has been extended through December 2017 so it can be better evaluated, he said. It has drawn scant interest so far: Only 10 of an estimated 3,200 employees have applied and been approved.

The library's program allows workers to request the phased-retirement schedule for up to one year, with extensions allowed. Mondragon believes workers have been slow to get into the program mainly because it is new and still not widely understood. But he thinks interest will grow.

Bob Fireovid, who worked as a national program leader at the Agricultural Research Service in Beltsville, the research arm of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, began planning for a phased retirement once the law passed in 2012.

As the only engineer on his program's staff, he said, "there's that expertise that I wanted to be able to provide to the agency and hopefully train somebody to better understand the engineering research and the direction the research was going. ... I thought I could still continue to provide a great deal of value to the agency."

He spoke to a supervisor about phasing out his retirement and she encouraged the plan. But by last September, the option was still not available.

"I knew that it wouldn't happen for at least a year or two, and I wasn't willing to wait that long," said Fireovid, 64. He retired last September.

The USDA plans to offer phased retirement as a limited test program for two years, starting next year.

Havens, the flight test engineer, said he began considering a phased schedule in 2012, when he became eligible to retire and around the time the law passed. His mother had developed Alzheimer's and he needed more time off to get her treatment and help. He hoped to work a 20-hour week and spend some of that time mentoring.

As a flight test engineer at the naval center, he tests and updates aircraft weapons systems.

"After 30 years, you've seen a lot of things, and you know how the system works, and some of the young people coming in do not know how the system works," he said. "Having somebody there who's been through it themselves can save them a lot of time and the learning curve is a lot less."

But he's been frustrated by a lack of information on the program.

"Sometimes just knowing that they're working on something is better than nothing," he said. "It's disappointing."

At this point, he plans to wait a few more years before deciding whether to retire.

"I'm looking at 62, and that's when I would reassess," he said.

Copyright © 2018, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad