Want to come home again?

Once retired, then rehired, some feds return to their former agencies to pass on their program knowledge

Springer on

Office of Personnel Management Director Linda Springer said hiring retired federal employees who are receiving pensions can help the government overcome the loss of knowledge and talent as workers retire. In an interview at her office in Washington, Springer talked about rehiring federal retirees.

Q: What are the reasons for rehiring federal employees who have retired?
A: The main issue for us is talent drain — the knowledge that will leave along with the 60 percent of the federal workforce that is eligible to retire [in the next 10 years]. We have people who have spent years and decades learning how to be effective in [the federal government] environment, and to lose that means that we’re challenged to find [people] who can come in and develop an understanding of how to reach that same level of effectiveness.

Q: What do you see as the primary workplace roles for retirees?
A: There are several. There are fulltime functional roles. Some instances are of an emergency nature — for example, to help with the Hurricane Katrina situation or some other national emergency or security-type situation.

We are able today to [grant waivers] to accommodate to annuitants — people who are already getting their federal pension. And we are able to grant waivers to allow people to come back under certain circumstances. Some agencies have received authority for special roles — for example, the Social Security Administration for [retirees] to work on the new Medicare Part D.

Another major role that we see is a part-time one — to be a mentor, an instructor or a trainer for new, full-time people who come in to assume those positions but they need someone to learn from. You could have a crack accountant come in [from the private sector] to take the place of a retiree but not know the federal financial reporting requirements or the budget process. So if we could have the previous incumbent who’s now retired and getting a pension available to come back on a part-time basis to train that person, how much more effective and better is that for the new person?

Q: Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.) and Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) have introduced bills in the House and Senate, at the behest of OPM, that would allow returning retirees to work part-time without suspension of their annuity payments. Are you optimistic about getting a law passed?
A: While there’s broad support for this, the heads of a couple of the unions are concerned that those returning annuitants would take the place of new employees. But you can see that that’s not what’s in view here — it actually helps new employees to have a mentor to train them. But we need to work with members of the majority in both the House and Senate to help them to deal with that concern, and that’s what we’ve been doing.

Q: Are you talking to the unions directly?
A: Yes. We’ve done that. And members of Congress who support this have been very involved as well.

I’ve called our [House and Senate federal workforce] subcommittee chairmen, Danny Davis and Daniel Akaka, and actually offered some suggestions for how we could deal with this. One would be, for example, to have [the proposed law] sunset after a few years, and we would stop and see how it’s working.

Q: What’s your sense of the willingness of federal retirees to come back to work?
A: I visit federal employees around the country and have spoken to a number of groups, and what I find to a person is that they want the option to work part time. Many of them don’t want to go from full time to no time, particularly if they’re in their late 50s. They don’t want [to go back to work] on a full-time basis.

They don’t want to have to get up at 7 o’clock in the morning five days a week and work a full day and have a commute. But would they be interested in working part time? A lot of people would. That’s what we’re after.

Q: What is the role of retirees in retaining institutional knowledge?
A: There are many ways [to retain institutional knowledge]. Succession planning is important, for example. You’ve got to be training people while they’re still here. However, [rehiring annuitants] gives us one additional tool. If you haven’t done all those steps along, this still allows us to bring that person back. I just think it’s a common-sense proposal.

— Richard W. Walker

Private-sector practices

A handful of companies have re-employment programs for retired workers that could be models for government agencies.

One is a retiree program at a utility company in the Gulf Coast region, said Ed Vitalos, associate partner in innovations and solutions at IBM Global Business Services. Measures such as cooperative support arrangements with other utility companies and partnerships with technical schools weren’t enough to bridge knowledge gaps, so company executives developed what they called a Ready Reserve program for retired employees.

Speaking last month at the American Association for Budget and Program Analysis’ fall symposium, Vitalos said the utility, which he did not identify, faced a high rate of retirements.

“The Ready Reserve program is a vehicle for orderly knowledge transfer,” he said.

“This is probably the best, most complete program I’ve seen because it not only deals with the basic concepts, but they’ve gotten down to some real nits and grits.”

Vitalos said the program is fully integrated into the company’s human resources infrastructure.

About six months before employees are scheduled to retire, they receive a questionnaire to gauge their interest in returning to work and to identify the type of work they would prefer to perform. The company puts the names of candidates for rehire and their work preferences into a database. When managers need to fill a position, they check the database for prospective employees and provide justification for rehiring a retiree.

The program has some restrictions. For example, retirees can be brought back only for specific projects and cannot simply be assigned the same duties they had before they left, Vitalos said. The utility company is unionized, but rehires have non-union status and their compensation is based on market rates.

The program has been a success, Vitalos said. “The utility used this program as its sole means for responding to Katrina. It was a really good proof point that this could help in one of these kinds of disasters.”

— Richard W. Walker

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.


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