Rescue mission: Back to the future

Tuesday - 6/24/2014, 2:00am EDT

If you have a son, daughter, grandchild, nephew or niece considering a career in the civil service — do them a favor:

Don't try to talk them out of it or encourage them to take the oath. Regardless of how well-intentioned and wise your advice is, chances are they won't listen. But there is something you can do. Which is...

Make a list of job-related things that worry you right now, as a 2014 fed. It might include things like:

  • Fear that the retirement program may be cut.

  • Or made more expensive to you, the employee.

  • Or that it will be eliminated completely.

  • That you will be forced to pay a much larger share of your health premiums. More than the current average, which is about 22 percent for white-collar workers and even less for active-duty postal employees.

  • That the high-three formula used to compute your annuity will be changed to one based on your highest five-year salary.

  • That a future Congress or President will propose a new formula to determine cost-of-living adjustments for retirees. A change, like the proposed chained CPI formula that, over time, would shave each future COLA by 0.3 percent, resulting in a lifetime loss in benefits of as much as 25 percent.

  • That Congress will reduce or eliminate COLAs for people who retire in the future.

  • And anything else that has kept you awake nights contemplating what the politicians will do next.

Then, seek out the office graybeard, somebody who has been in government forever and show him (or her, in which case forget the beard) your nightmare script. Then stand back. Why?

He or she will either laugh — or cry. But they won't be surprised. That's because virtually all of the threats facing federal workers today have been around, in one form or another, for the past 30 years. In some cases longer.

With only a few exceptions, none of the plans to trim civil-service benefits has made it into law while there have been a number of improvements over the same period.

The creation of the FERS retirement program in the 1980s (when it replaced CSRS for new hires) probably saved both. Had FERS (which requires employees to finance part of their retirement by investing in the Thrift Savings Plan) not been implemented, it is likely that Congress might have eventually eliminated the "defined benefit" (CSRS benefit) completely. Many states, local governments and private firms have done that. Others are planning to, too.

The fact that almost none of past "imminent" threats to federal benefits happened is a fact. And history. But that is no reason to ignore them as if they were just political theater.

The political climate is changing. The Great Recession was a wake up call to a generation that didn't know anything about the Depression their parents or grandparents went through. The federal retirement program has twice been modified in recent years. People hired last year pay more into it, and people hired this year pay more than that.

There have been no changes for pre-2013 hires. But that doesn't mean changes for all won't be proposed next year. Nor does the fact that changes haven't been approved in the past mean it can't happen next year. Or the year after that.

So fasten your seat belts and enjoy the ride. These may be the good old days.


NEARLY USELESS FACTOID

Men are more likely than women to know (though not necessarily be able to define) words like "codec," "solenoid" and "golem." Women, on the other hand, are more likely than men to recognize the words "taffeta," "tresses" and "bottlebrush."


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