No Cal Buyouts

Friday - 8/10/2012, 2:00am EDT

Cash-strapped federal agencies that still face the possibility of sequestration are watching the Social Security Administration for clues on how to downsize on the cheap. Thanks to Congress, SSA, once considered untouchable by politicians, must eliminate 9,000 slots before the new fiscal year begins Oct. 1.

SSA has already had to close and consolidate some offices and to curtail hours in others. Now it is trying to thin the ranks using a half-a-loaf approach. Early-retirement but without an accompanying buyout. The No Cal Buyout! If it works, your agency may adopt it too.

For the past two years, dozens of federal agencies have offered employees the chance to take early retirement AND get a buyout. Buyouts have proved popular, even though they haven't been adjusted for inflation in 20 years. The maximum payment is $25,000 before deductions.

Buyouts for Postal Service employees have been limited to $20,000 and $15,000 in two annual payments. Still they've had takers.

Insiders say SSA's decision not to offer buyouts was a tough call. Administrator Michael J. Astrue is especially close to employees, according to a long-time career manager. In 2010, he surprised (and angered) some agency heads and some White House aides by giving SSA workers the Friday after Thanksgiving off as an unofficial (but paid) holiday. He said it was a thank-you for the job workers had done under trying economic conditions.

Astrue told SSA workers that this year they "faced unprecedented workloads and unprecedented hostility from an increasingly stressed public. While many government agencies understandably have moved backward in this climate, you have moved forward."

The fact that SSA is offering early outs without a cash sweetener is a sign times are tough. So will other agencies follow suit? Here are some thoughts from readers:

  • "Read Thursday's column about early-outs. It piqued a few thoughts out of me. I don't see a buyout coming for me (IRS) and the two-year wage freeze has really hurt the pension that I would have received and I would need more than the $25,000 they would offer to retire. So if offered, as much as I would want to leave, would not take it. To leave now would leave me considerably short of the 70 to 80% of my current income recommended for retirement even receiving $25,000.00. I am sure there are many SS employees thinking the same way. Offer me a year's salary and I'm outta here! We all know that's not going to happen. So 'I'll be back' as the terminator says.

    What have you heard about furloughs? I heard that at least here there was some talk about 2 week furloughs or payless days throughout the year. I thought it was more of a tactic by upper management saying 'Quit complaining at least you have a job.' What have you heard?" — Tony IRS

    ( Thoughts from Mike: If sequestration takes place in January, some agencies had said they might have to furlough employees. One member of Congress last year proposed a staggering 10 to 12-day furlough of one day per month. But the proposal never went anywhere. Furloughs are always possible, but it is also possible sequestration won't happen or, if it does, that huge chunks of the government would be exempted. Right now politicians of both parties are playing political chicken with the budget and sequestration.)

  • "I work at SSA, and have been off for medical reasons. I go back to work shortly. I'm eligible to retire now. If they offer a $25,000 buyout, I'm gone." — M.

  • "Among colleagues I have observed, morale is so bad here (Census Bureau) that there would be a mad dash for the doors if they offered early retirement, and a full-blown stampede (tsunami, you might call it) if they offered early retirement AND A BUYOUT. Our problem isn't anger at a single supervisor or the management team. People are furious with Congress for jerking us around. ( We realize the pay freeze was proposed by the Obama administration. Since then, however, Congress has been after all our earned and promised benefits.)

    As I reflect on this, it dawned on me that the fed-haters in the Congress would love to see us go. If government services slipped that would "prove" their point that government is no good. Perhaps the plan is to beat us up to the point where we all quit, or retire, and they can then make a case for privatizing things (like they did for a while at the IRS). On second thought, I'm staying. If they freeze pay for another 5 years I'll stay another 6 years. Meantime, I'm hoping for a turnover in Congress this November." — Incensed at Census