Congress puts pressure on OPM to release final phased retirement rule

Monday - 7/7/2014, 4:17pm EDT

By Dena Levitz
Federal News Radio

The Office of Personnel Management's delay in solidifying a phased retirement program for federal workers is drawing scrutiny from Congress.

Two letters sent from the Hill recently call for OPM to explain why it's taking so long to release final phased retirement regulations and demand a revised timeline for action.

It has been two years since Congress passed legislation granting OPM the power to establish a phased retirement program. Phased retirement will allow federal employees, with approval from their agency, to partially retire and draw half of their earned retirement benefits while continuing to work part-time.

By January of this year, OPM was supposed to have published final regulations around implementation. But the fact that this hasn't happened yet is "delaying the anticipated start of phased retirement by nearly five months and counting," according to the July 2 letter signed by six members of Congress.

"As you may be aware, many Federal employees have given up hope that OPM will ever take Final Action," states the letter, addressed to OPM Director Katherine Archuleta and Office of Management and Budget Acting Director Brian Deese. "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 members of Congress whose names are attached to the complaint letter are: Gerald Connolly (D-Va.), Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), Stephen Lynch (D-Mass.), Jim Moran (D-Va.), Rob Wittman (R-Va.) and Frank Wolf (R-Va.)

Their grievances come after the federal government lost 80,000 employees last year and as many agencies experience staff shortages. One intended benefit of phased retirement is to combat this problem, especially because federal workers who opt to do phased retirement will be required to mentor newer staff additions as a means of preparing them.

"Phased retirement is a valuable tool that will help agencies effectively manage their transition between the departure of experienced staff and the personnel who will take their place," the letter says. "As we think about the recruitment and retention challenges for the Federal workforce of the future, programs such as this will be an essential element of Federal job offerings."

The other Congressional letter expressing dismay over phased retirement implementation hold-ups is from the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform and signed by committee chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) on July 1.

Issa emphasizes that it's been a year since proposed regulations were issued by OPM, which should be plenty of time for final regulations to emerge.

"This raises concerns that OPM is unnecessarily delaying the rule and impeding the law from being carried out as Congress intended," Issa states in the letter. "Accordingly, I request OPM provide the Committee with its timeline for publishing the final regulation, and an explanation for the delay, by July 14, 2014."

During an exclusive online chat on Federal News Radio in May, OPM Director Archuleta said her agency was working hard on final regulations.

"We are hopeful that it will be completed in fiscal year 2014," she said during the chat. "We want to make sure we get it right, and we will have an update soon."

Monday afternoon, a spokesperson for OPM reiterated this goal in this fiscal year but didn't comment directly on the letters from Congress.

Jessica Klement, legislative director for the National Active and Retired Federal Employees Association, told Federal News Radio her association was pleased to see that members of Congress who wrote in to OPM were from both political parties, who both expressed hope that OPM take finalizing phased retirement regulations seriously.

"I think that members of Congress saw the phased retirement option as a win-win. It works for agencies. It works for employees. It also saves the federal government money, to the tune of $450 million over 10 years," she said. "And when you have something that can save that sort of money, it's frustrating for members of Congress to not see it implemented. We're equally frustrated."

NARFE is hearing an abundance of interest from its members about taking part in phased retirement and, on the flip side, an impatience if it doesn't happen soon.

"We get calls from NARFE members on a weekly basis asking us if we know when this will be an option," Klement said. "And usually the end of that phone conversation or email it says, 'Well, if this isn't an option by X date, I'll just retire.'"

For a while, Klement said the association had no answer to provide. When Archuleta revealed that October was the new target, "We've been telling them that," Klement said.

"As far as we know, OPM's on track to have this implemented," she said.

On the program "For Your Benefit", hosts Bob Leins and Tammy Flanagan gave their annual mid-year discussion on the state of the federal workforce. Flanagan highlighted phased retirement as one of the major initiatives that has passed — saying it has big advantages to workers when it ultimately takes effect.

She said easing out of retirement, in the way that the program was conceived, is ideal for workers who are financially yet not mentally ready to retire fully.

Another big question going forward is the agency level of participation. The law paving the way for phased retirement gives leeway for agencies to set the period that their employees can phase out and whether to even allow participation at all.

"You can't force a person into phased retirement, and a person can't do it without their agency's approval," Flanagan said, during the show.

Her hope is that agencies see the value in accepting phased retirement.

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