OPM lobbies for legislative fix to workforce crisis

Officials hope new law to rehire retired feds is just the beginning

OPM's Proposal for Retiree Reemployment

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Retired Foreign Service workers might not be the only former feds trading in their golf shirts for suits if federal managers have their way.

President Bush signed a law July 30 that lets retired  employees more easily return to federal work to help deal with a backlog of passport applications. That legislative fix could be a precursor to a broader effort to encourage agencies to rehire retirees and head off an impending workforce shortage.

The Passport Backlog Reduction Act lets Foreign Service workers temporarily return to the government without jeopardizing their pensions or retiree benefits.

Lawmakers and administration officials are hoping retirees will help the State Department get through about 3 million passport applications — a backlog caused in large part by new requirements for U.S. citizens traveling to countries throughout the Western Hemisphere. More than 50 retirees already have returned to help with the process, said Edgar Vasquez, a State Department spokesman.

In times of crisis, the Office of Personnel Management has granted so-called dual-compensation waivers that let retirees return to work, but laws similar to the one Bush signed last week are rare. And as about 600,000 federal workers prepare to retire in the next few years, experts are pushing for legislation that would make it easier for agencies to temporarily hire back retired feds to train new employees and meet emergency staffing needs.

Linda Springer, OPM’s director, told lawmakers that governmentwide legislation is needed. She spoke during an Aug. 2 hearing held by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee’s Federal Workforce, Postal Service and the District of Columbia Subcommittee.

Changing the law so federal retirees can temporarily return to work to train new hires without losing their retirement benefits is crucial to the future of the federal workforce, Springer said.

“Nothing is a higher priority to us than the re-employed annuitant proposal that we have that would allow us to have the benefit and the knowledge of annuitants who want to come back and help train that next generation,” Springer added.

Earlier this year, OPM sent House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Vice President Dick Cheney, who serves as the Senate’s president, a proposal that would let retirees come back to work on a limited basis if an agency needed them.
Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine), George Voinovich (R-Ohio) and John Warner (R-Va.) introduced OPM’s proposal Aug. 3.

Employee unions are concerned about how such legislation might affect recruitment if agencies rehire retirees to whom they do not have to pay benefits, said J. David Cox, the American Federation of Government Employees’ national secretary-treasurer.

He said the union, which represents more than 600,000 federal employees, also has concerns about how the rule change would affect promotion opportunities for active employees.

The smaller National Active and Retired Federal Employees Association, which mostly represents employees who are preparing to retire or who have recently retired, supports OPM’s proposal. Judy Park, the union’s legislative director, said she is confident the parties can work together to address any concerns.

Strict limits on how much retirees can work ensure that agencies will hire new employees for specific staffing needs, Springer said.

She added that even if the rules are changed to let retirees return to work, agencies still will face a massive shortage of workers in the next decade.
OPM proposes to hire the retired
The Office of Personnel Management submitted a proposal to Congress that would let retirees come back for limited re-employment. Retirees would not risk their pensions or gain any new benefits.

Under the plan, a retiree could work:
  • A maximum of 520 hours in the first six months after retiring.
  • A maximum of 1,040 hours in any 12-month period.
  • A total 6,240 hours after retiring.
— Ben Bain

About the Author

Ben Bain is a reporter for Federal Computer Week.

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