Phased retirement participation picks up steam, but still hasn’t come close to initial expectations

Participation in government’s once-highly-anticipated phased retirement program has picked up some steam over the last year, as more than 600 federal employees have now applied.

To date, a total of 632 federal employees have opted into phased retirement, according to the Office of Personnel Management data provided to Federal News Network. Of that number, a total of 454 employees have applied, completed their agency’s requirements and have fully retired.

In tracking the phased retirement program, OPM refers to the latter group of 454 employees as “composite” retirements. Of this group, 184 federal employees retired from the Civil Service Retirement System (CSRS) and another 270 left federal service from the Federal Employee Retirement System (FERS).

The most recent data is a far cry from what the Congressional Budget Office originally estimated back in 2012 when it first scored the program. CBO had projected 1,000 federal employees at any given time would enter into phased retirement per year.

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To date, total participation across government during the program’s eight-year lifespan has yet to reach the initial expectations for a single year of phased retirement.

Though uptake of the federal phased retirement program has still fallen well short of those initial expectations, participation does appear to have picked up over the last year.

Federal News Network has been tracking participation in the phased retirement program since 2016, when just 90 employees had signed up. Nearly a year later, about 300 employees had applied for the program, and by mid-2018, participation sat at 417 employees.

OPM first gave agencies the green light in November 2014 to begin accepting applications from their employees for the program.

The program was also supposed to combat “brain drain” as more employees leave for retirement. According to a 2017 study from the Government Accountability Office, nearly one-third of the federal workforce is eligible to retire in the next two years.

(Source: Office of Personnel Management)

Congress first signed off on the phased retirement program back in 2012.

After OPM released regulations on the new program back in 2014, individual agencies were responsible for issuing and implementing their own specific guidelines on phased retirement. But many agencies were slow to unveil them, and some have clearly opted not to offer phased retirement programs.

The Department of Homeland Security, for example, is absent from OPM’s data, as is the Education Department, the General Services Administration and OPM itself.

Few agencies over the years have begun to offer phased retirement as an option for their employees. Both the Transportation Department and the National Labor Relations Board have offered the program to a handful of federal employees over the last year.

Though participation is still modest, some agencies have, in fact, seen their numbers grow over the past year.

NASA, for example, has a total of 108 employees who have been through a phased retirement program, the most of any other agency. It added at least 35 employees between 2018 and the present.

The Commerce and Interior Departments, along with the EPA and Department of Veterans Affairs, have also steadily increased phased retirement participation.

Hover over each agency to see more detailed data, or click here for a static image. Source: the Office of Personnel Management

Perhaps the low participation in the phased retirement program across government isn’t surprising.

Some federal employee groups have said the program in its current form offers little flexibility, because it doesn’t let phased retirees tailor their workload to current needs or their agencies’ priorities.

The National Active and Retired Federal Employees (NARFE) Association said its members rarely ask about phased retirement at informational sessions and health fairs, and its benefits experts haven’t fielded many questions about the topic on the phone.

According to a Federal News Network survey of employees about their retirement plans, few respondents said they planned to take advantage of a phased retirement program.

The survey was unscientific and polled 1,225 respondents about phased retirement. Just 5% of respondents said they did plan to participate in a phased retirement program.

But the majority of survey respondents, 55%, said they didn’t plan to take advantage of a phased retirement program. Nearly 38% said their agency didn’t have a phased retirement program.

Many respondents said phased retirement wasn’t available at their agency for their position, or if it was, they knew little to nothing about it.

“At my agency, phased retirement is not available to supervisors,” one respondent wrote. “I’m a supervisor or else I might have considered it.”

“My agency doesn’t advertise a phased retirement program, so I’m assuming it’s not available here,” another respondent said. “[I’m] not sure I would do it anyway. I just want to leave. I’m trying to mentor on my way out and hope it helps.”

And if their agencies did begin to offer phased retirement, respondents were largely mixed on whether they would even consider it.

Others said the program wasn’t attractive and didn’t match up with their plans to leave federal service.

Retirement-eligible federal employees who sign up for the program agree to work part-time in their positions while collecting half their salary and half their accumulated retirement annuity. Once approved, phased retirees must dedicate part of their working hours — 20% in some cases — to mentoring other employees who plan to take over their job responsibilities once they leave.

“Why would I give up half of my retirement income to work part-time and not get any further
contributions towards a higher retirement amount?” one respondent wrote. “Give me my full retirement and then maybe I’ll work part time like other companies do.”