WASHINGTON -- For almost three decades, Martin Kurland has dreamed of leaving his job at the Social Security Administration to pursue a career as a clown.
Next year, thanks to a lucrative buyout for federal workers proposed by the Clinton administration, the 57-year-old social insurance specialist may get his chance.
Congress is now putting the finishing touches on legislation that would provide departing federal workers with up to $25,000 in severance pay. Though final details of the buyout are still being worked out, some federal employees are already plotting their escape from the civil service.
"It's something I really want to do," says Mr. Kurland, who is anxiously waiting to see if he will be eligible. "Now, I might be able to try my wings at it, but know there is a safety net."
Theoretically, every federal employee with at least 12 months of service would be eligible for next year's buyout, which is part of the Clinton administration's effort to slash the government work force by 252,000 over the next five years. Officials at the Office of Personnel Management estimate that between 60,000 and 100,000 of the nation's 2.1 million federal workers would take the offer.
But individual agencies would be able to deny the offer to certain departments or pay grades -- a likely scenario at Social Security.
The buyout program might be more liberal at NASA, which employs nearly 4,000 people at the Goddard Space Flight Center at Greenbelt. The space agency hopes to cut its work force of 24,000 by just over ten percent.
The proposed law, which is still being drafted on Capitol Hill, calls for federal employees to receive the equivalent of one week's pay for each of their first ten years and two weeks' pay for each additional year or $25,000, whichever is less. One caveat: For each year under age 55, a worker's pension benefits would shrink by two percent.
That cash could enable Mr. Kurland to give up his desk-bound existence and begin working as a children's entertainer and clown full-time, instead of the occasional weekend and evening, as he does now.
In recent months, Mr. Kurland, a Pikesville resident, has been mulling over the possible proposal, crunching the numbers and talking it over with his wife and co-workers.
Like Mr. Kurland, thousands of other civil servants in Maryland and across the country are thinking hard about their futures. Already, the buyout has become a daily topic of discussion around the water coolers and cafeterias at Social Security's huge Woodlawn headquarters.
The usual retirement rate of 6 percent a year has dropped by half this year as Social Security's 14,000 Baltimore workers watch what Washington does, according to John Gage, president of Local 1923 of the American Federation of Government Employees, which represents roughly 20,000 workers at Social Security and the nearby Health Care Financing Administration.
"I've had more calls about this than anything else in the last few years," says Alvin Levy, executive vice president of Local 1923.
The implications of the buyout are especially serious for Social Security. Its work force is older than that of many agencies. And, according to Mr. Levy, 40 percent of its workers will be eligible for retirement over the next five years.
Strains left by layoffs
In addition, the agency's employees are already operating under the strains left behind by huge layoffs during the 1980s. Another exodus could further clog an already overburdened system, managers worry.
It is likely that at least some workers who might want to participate won't be offered the deal to prevent certain departments from getting hit too hard.
"It's real hard for me to sort this out because, on the one hand, we would be offering buyouts at a time when we so desperately need people, and obviously the people who would choose buyouts would be those who are the most senior and most experienced," says Social Security's new commissioner, Shirley Sears Chater. "So, it presents a difficulty to the agency at a particularly critical time."
Social Security officials say they are far from making any decisions about eligibility. But that hasn't stopped Pam Thomas, a program analyst, from fantasizing about the buyout. It might enable Mrs. Thomas and her husband, Dan, a systems analyst at the agency, to retire early and move to California.
"We talk about it a lot," says Mrs. Thomas, 52, who lives in Charles Village. "I'd read and write and sculpt and paint and enjoy sleeping in."
Some of the agency's younger staff members are thinking about their plans as well, saying they might consider a move to the private sector if the severance package is lucrative enough. Others are reluctant to give up secure jobs and venture into a tough job market.
"Leaving had crossed my mind in the past," says Dick Keidel, a project leader in Social Security's international operations office. But it's unlikely because of high unemployment, corporate layoffs and little job security in the private sector. Besides, I like doing what I'm doing."
This would not be the first time the government has offered its employees a buyout.
A much-praised buyout at the Department of Defense is still under way and has enticed at least 30,000 to leave. Last year the U.S. Postal Service shed 47,000 of its 750,000 employees with a severance offer, but critics charged that some workers were forced out and that many of those who stayed behind were shunted into undesirable posts.
Cutting muscle or fat?
Moreover, critics maintain that muscle rather than fat was cut, harming the Post Office's efficiency rather than helping it. Many of the employees who left had to be replaced and overtime costs could wipe out any cost savings.
Already, federal workers at Social Security and elsewhere are worried about how voluntary the federal buyout would actually be.
"The union and the commissioner have to make sure it isn't undermined by a bunch of bureaucrats," says Harold Roof, an adviser of Mr. Gage at Local 1923. Mr. Roof says: "There is a fear that it would allow the fat cats out while keeping the lower-level people in."
Overall, though, the buyout proposal fits neatly into Vice President Al Gore's plans for "reinventing" government, which call for the elimination of 252,000 federal positions while avoiding layoffs.
The Gore plan is aimed at thinning the ranks of middle-level managers who critics say aren't needed. In addition, the buyout would help President Clinton fulfill his earlier promise of cutting 100,000 people from federal payrolls.
Although the buyout legislation is now before the full House and is close to being sent to the floor of the Senate, there are signs of growing opposition.
Republicans have attacked the $25,000 payment as too costly. And while the administration maintains the buyouts will not require any extra money and will be funded from existing budgets, the Congressional Budget Office has estimated it could cost $674 million over the next three years.
Until recently, the legislation had been on Congress' fast track, with passage expected by the end of the year. But now, staffers say, they fear the Republican opposition could delay a vote until next year.
Mr. Kurland says he hasn't decided what to do. "In the past, it would have been difficult to maintain a mortgage and a lifestyle," he says. "But it's a also a matter of job satisfaction. When a kid in a hospital says 'Mr. Clown, I love you,' you just can't put a dollar figure on that."
PROPOSED FEDERAL BUYOUT
ELIGIBILITY: All federal employees with at least 12 months of continuous service. But implementation is up to individual agencies, which will likely limit its scope to fit their needs. The Office of Personnel Management estimates that between 60,000 and 100,000 of 2.1 million workers will volunteer to take the buyout next year.
BENEFITS: The severance package would equal one week's salary for each of an employee's first 10 years plus two weeks salary for each additional year or $25,000, whichever is less. Pensions would shrink by 2 percent, however, for each year under age 55.
LIKELY WINNERS: Mid-level managers who have been with an agency for decades as well as people planning to retire anyway. Some backers hope that the retirements will open higher positions to younger employees. Keep in mind, however, that agencies may exclude critical departments or personnel.