Can I get a COLA, please?

How do you know when it's time to retire? Wouldn't it be nice if there was some kind of gauge or target? We asked a longtime Homeland Security worker who's leav...

Senior Correspondent Mike Causey is on vacation. While he’s away, he’s invited guest columnists to fill in.

Today’s guest column is by a longtime fed who has helped out before. While we hope to use her again, this is the last time she will be writing as an employee. This time next summer she will be, we hope, happily retired. So what does she think after a long career? And what’s in the future? Here goes:

“Four years ago, when Mike asked me to write a guest column for him, I wrote about timing the retirement wave and the uncertainty we experience when determining the right time. Well, that time is now. I will retire in three months. Truly. Finally. After pushing back the finish line three or four times, I will finally cross it.

Earlier in my career, I remember people who were close to retirement who became angry at every little bureaucratic twist and turn. I thought I would feel that way when I retired. I’m surprised to find that, instead, I am retiring at a time when I have a job I truly love and people to work with whom I like and respect. I’m just running out of energy and time for the other parts of life outside of work. I didn’t expect that.

Public service can be frustrating. But it is also gratifying. There is a pride in serving your country, a feeling that what you do is important and necessary for the government to operate smoothly. Many of us help ordinary citizens each and every day, whether we get noticed for it or not.

We’re also an easy target for politicians who want to make a name for themselves by tearing us down. More than one administration, congressional representative, or senator has taken aim at the federal employee using expressions such as “trim the fat”, or “drain the swamp”, in order to portray the federal workforce as bloated and overpaid.

My love/hate relationship with Uncle Sam dates back to February 1977. I’ve worked outside in the heat, the cold, the rain, and the wind. I’ve gone through hiring freezes, pay freezes, government shutdowns and furloughs.

Most people don’t go into the federal government for the pay. And, although the benefits are enticing, I don’t believe they are the primary motivating factor in bringing us into the ranks, either. After all, when I joined the federal service the majority of large corporations offered good salaries, perks, free health care, AND a retirement pension.

The latest budget proposal concerns me. Especially with regard to retirement. I can (almost) understand — but don’t like — the idea of establishing new retirement systems for new employees. If the employee agrees to the conditions, she/he has time to make other preparations to ensure a smooth retirement. This happened with FERS in 1983. I’m not certain, however, that there will be enough attraction for the best and the brightest when the federal government no longer offers anything other than pride of service.

What I simply can’t condone is the idea of implementing these changes without grandfathering those who no longer have time to improve their odds of a successful retirement. To eliminate costs of living adjustments (COLAs) to pensions for people already retired or within a few years of retirement is changing the pay to which the employees and former employees agreed. There is a trust factor here which has been badly betrayed.

A 2010 Congressional Research Service Report stated “COLAs do not make retirees better off financially; they merely protect them from becoming financially worse-off over time as prices rise.”

Federal employees began getting a cost of living adjustment to their pensions in 1962. It took another 13 years (1975) before Congress acknowledged that Social Security recipients should also get one. I can only imagine the political fallout if COLAs were removed for Social Security recipients.”

I pray that wiser, more responsible people in the House and Senate will realize the injustice of eliminating this long relied upon benefit and will vote down this portion of the budget.

I’m still going to retire.

— Lenore Calabrese Customs and Border Protection.

Nearly Useless Factoid

By Jory Heckman

In 1901, New York became the first state to require license plates. By 1918, all states required license plates.

Source: Smithsonian Museum of American History

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