Want to come home again?
Once retired, then rehired, some feds return to their former agencies to pass on their program knowledge
- By Richard W. Walker
- Dec 14, 2007
Three years ago, Reginald Wells, deputy commissioner of human resources and chief human capital officer at the Social Security Administration, visited an agency field office in the Detroit area. He talked to a group of employees about a large number of retirements that would hit the agency in a few years and about how SSA planned to prepare a new generation of workers.
“What was most interesting about this field office was that there were a lot of young faces in it, which you don’t always see when you go around to these various locations,” Wells said. “We have a fairly senior workforce.”
A young employee raised her hand and pointed out an older woman in the group, a retired employee who had come back to work at the field office.
“This lady is an expert on disability benefits, and if she was not here to guide us, we would not be nearly as productive as we have been,” the younger employee said. “We just love her. She’s a tremendous addition.”
For Wells, that experience reinforced the value of having retired employees — annuitants, in the government vernacular — return on a temporary basis to pass on institutional knowledge, mentor younger employees or fill skill gaps.
The Office of Personnel Management aggressively promotes the idea that federal retirees are a valuable resource for government agencies. “When you find that you have a temporary loss of expertise, you can bring someone back who knows the ropes — on a temporary basis,” said Nancy Kichak, associate director of strategic human resources policy at OPM. “You can bring somebody in to train new people or handle emergency situations.”
An example of the latter is Frank Lalley, a retiree from the Homeland Security Department who returned to the Federal Emergency Management Agency in 2006 as special assistant to the chief information officer and senior liaison for the government’s Hurricane Katrina response. A Federal Computer Week Federal 100 award winner, Lalley managed a program that established interoperable communications for federal, state and local workers before the beginning of the 2006 hurricane season. He brought invaluable technical skills to the job in addition to a thorough knowledge of the communications community, a colleague said.
Al Belsky, who retired last year as public affairs director at the Labor Department’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration, has a different story. Belsky was back at work at Labor a few months after retiring because the department needed to fill a temporary staffing gap, partly created when he retired.
“I was asked if I could help out,” Belsky said. “I had worked with the department for well over 30 years, so I felt I owed them some time because I had loyalty to the organization.
They had been good to me throughout my career. It was time for me to pay back some.”
Belsky was able to help the department get over its staffing hump during the eight months he spent there.He also was able to pass on critical knowledge to new employees and act as a mentor to them.
That was especially satisfying, Belsky said, because he didn’t receive much mentoring when he arrived in Washington in 1989 after working 17 years at a Labor regional office. “I was thrown into the deep end of the pool,” he said.
Belsky remembered that experience when he came back after retiring.
“I felt if I can make this transition to new jobs easier for the people coming onboard, all the better for them and all the better for the organization that they are trying to serve,” he said.
Belsky returned to work at Labor as a contractor, working for a company that has contracts with the department to do public affairs work.
Because he was a contractor, he didn’t have to worry about losing his government annuity or pensio . Und er current law, retired federal workers must either suspend their pensions or receive a salary reduced by the amount of their pension payments if they return to work part-time.
Some retired employees are willing to forgo their pension if they want to return to work badly enough, Kichak said. But for the most part, current law is a major impediment to rehiring retirees. OPM can grant waivers to agencies to fill positions in emergency situations, but there are few other exceptions.
“Right now, for an agency to bring somebody back, they have to prove to us that they have an emergency, and the emergency has to be a threat to life or property,” Kichak said. “It can’t be, ‘I have an emergency — I forgot to do my budget and somebody has to come and help me do it.’ The law as it exists provides very few opportunities to bring people back.”
As a result, the practice is not as common as some officials would like it to be. Retirees “have to be pretty committed to us to come back without a waiver,” Wells said.
OPM officials are counting on legislation that would resolve the problem. Separate bills sponsored this year in the House by Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.) and in the Senate by Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) would allow retired employees to return to work part-time without losing their benefits. Federal retirees who want to return to work “should be encouraged, not penalized,” Davis said.
The outlook for a legislative remedy isn’t clear. The government’s labor unions have raised concerns that rehired retirees would displace full-time employees or block promotion opportunities for younger workers. But the legislation has drawn support from groups such as the National Association of Retired Federal Employees, the Federal Managers Association, the Council for Excellence in Government and the Partnership for Public Service.
“Given the reality of needing to have a pipeline of talented, experienced people coming into government, particularly at the management level, it seems to me to be a no-brainer that this should be an option” for agencies, said Patricia McGinnis, president and chief executive officer at the Council for Excellence in Government.
However, one challenge for agencies is to ensure that rehired retirees don’t simply fill a temporary gap and leave. Instead, they should return to pass on institutional knowledge, said Max Stier, president and chief executive officer at the Partnership for Public Service.
“If somebody’s coming back for a little bit of time, they shouldn’t just deal with the pressing problem but help the next generation get trained,” Stier said. “I’m a fan of trying to use that talent and trying to hold on to it as much as possible. That clearly makes sense for the government.”
However, many observers cautioned that re-employing retired workers is only one tool for agency human resources officials.
Peter Del Toro, assistant director of strategic issues at the Government Accountability Office, agreed. “Certainly, [rehiring retirees] is not going to solve the whole issue,” he said.
“For certain niche areas, that’s probably the short-term answer. There has to be a more strategic approach than just bringing back retirees.”
Still, that one retiree can make a world of difference, as Wells’ retired disabilities expert in Detroit demonstrated. “If you have someone who is viewed as an expert and can come back and guide you through a difficult or complex case, it’s worth its weight in gold,” he said.