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Lawmakers push OPM to release retirement rules

Phased retirement was supposed to be good for everyone.

The idea was to allow the growing number of federal employees who are eligible for retirement to remain in their jobs part time, while sparing the government the sudden loss of institutional memory that would come if they all quit at once.

But workers, agencies and lawmakers have been waiting for more than two years for the Office of Personnel Management to release rules on how the program will work.

They're getting anxious.

"It's been annoying," said Phil Lenowitz, senior adviser to the director of the National Institutes of Health human resources department. "People become discouraged, and it taints their view of OPM."

Six lawmakers, including Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, wrote a letter this month urging OPM to release the rules soon.

Phased retirement, signed into law in 2012 by President Barack Obama, is intended to allow retirement-ready federal employees to switch to part-time work and begin receiving half of their pension. The government would benefit from the experience of those who choose to stay and help mentor younger colleagues.

"Phased retirement allows flexibility for employees, while also offering continuity of operations for agencies," Cummings said in a statement. "A situation from which both employees and agencies would benefit."

The OPM had said it would finalize the rules by January. Now it's aiming for the end of September.

The delay has prevented employees and their agencies from taking advantage of the program.

Officials for the OPM declined a request for an interview.

"We are working hard on the phased retirement rule, and hope that it will be completed in fiscal year 2014," spokeswoman Nathaly Arriola said in a statement. "Most importantly, we want to make sure we get it right, and we will update you on the rule when we have more information."

Some lawmakers remain skeptical.

"Many Federal employees have given up hope that OPM will ever take Final Action," the six — Democrats and Republicans from Massachusetts, Maryland and Virginia — wrote. "These employees are choosing to completely retire in frustration that they will never have the opportunity to support their agencies in mentoring and training the next generation of civil servants on a part-time basis."

The federal government lost more than 80,000 employees last year, the lawmakers noted, and OPM data shows that about 27 percent of the workforce is 55 or older, the age at which employees become eligible for retirement.

And that percentage is increasing.

"According to the Government Accountability Office, more than 1/3 of career Federal employees will be eligible for retirement by September 2017, so phased retirement will allow agencies to maintain the knowledge base of the most experienced Federal employees longer," Cummings said.

Aides said the lawmakers had not received a response to the letter.

In the absence of rules for phased retirement, Lenowitz has taken advantage of the government's retire/rehire program. He retired in April and now is working in a new, part-time position at the NIH.

It works for him, he said, but it might not for everyone. In any case, the program expires in October.

Unions see potential problems with phased retirement.

One is that preliminary rules would give agencies the authority to accept or deny the application of an eligible employee.

"It's totally at the discretion of management," said Jacque Simon, national public policy director for the American Federation of Government Employees. "There's no fair process for deciding who may get the opportunity."

The National Federation of Federal Employees shares that concern.

"There's no system to allow an employee to appeal a decision made on phased retirement," spokesman Drew Halunen said.

Halunen said his union wasn't done reviewing the preliminary rules. He said there might be "other areas of concern for us."

Simon said AFGE members worry that phased retirement could have a negative impact on their careers.

"It limits the opportunity for people to get promotions and lateral transfers," he said. A worker might "think someone's retiring, and then they don't.

"It's a long, drawn-out process that lengthens the time of someone vacating a position and someone being able to move into [that position]. That's a problem."

While some are anxious for the OPM to finalize the rules, Halunen said it's important not to "sacrifice details and thoughtfulness in the name of speed and efficiency."

It's also good, he said, that lawmakers are letting the OPM know they're paying attention.

dmking@baltsun.com

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