- The Washington Times - Monday, August 31, 2009

If you want to get people’s attention — whether in a federal office, the floor of a factory or even in a newsroom — just drop the term “buyout” and see what happens.

The U.S. Postal Service dropped the buyout bombshell last week. It stunned most rank-and-file employees, politicians and even some of the postal unions that had been pushing for it.

The cash-strapped USPS, the largest civilian federal operation, wants to lure up to 30,000 craft employees (clerks and mail handlers) to take regular or early retirement. In return they would get a $15,000 buyout in two payments.

Any time buyouts are offered, people respond. Buyouts were big in government in the 1990s, when more than 100,000 federal workers took the money. Many retired early. That helped save the jobs of folks who would otherwise be laid off under the government’s last-hired, first-fired rules.

By most standards a buyout is a win-win. But not always.

After years of saying it would never again offer buyouts, including in recent congressional testimony, postal officials caved. They were disappointed that only a few thousand employees had taken their offer of early retirement (at age 50 and with 20 years of service, or at any age with 25 years of federal service) so they had to up the ante.

The buyout amount — which is a gross figure before taxes and other required deductions — is less than the $25,000 that other federal agencies have been offering some workers since the early 1990s. But officials of the cash-strapped USPS say that’s all they can afford.

The Postal Service was burned badly in 1992-93 when it offered buyouts equal to six months salary to many employees. About 23,000 managers and supervisors and 25,000 clerks and letter carriers took the money. But this created a midlevel management gap that forced the USPS to backfill many of the jobs they paid experienced managers to leave.

Several thousand employees took the early retirement offer this year, despite the admonishment of union leaders, such as William Burrus of the American Postal Workers Union, to reject any early-out offer unless it also included a buyout.

Now a lot of those former postal workers are bitter because they left before the buyout was offered. Talks with a number of recent early retirees say they were repeatedly assured, by their local management and by Washington that there was no chance of a buyout.

Fred Jones from Houston retired earlier this year after being assured that there was no chance of a buyout to sweeten his early-retirement officer.

“Back in April,” he said in a telephone interview, “the postmaster general was interviewed by the Federal Times … nd stated that the post office didn’t have money and couldn’t offer incentives.” He said top postal brass made similar statements during congressional hearings this year.

Told that there would not be any buyout offer, Mr. Jones said he retired three weeks ago at age 49.

He said he took a 12 percent pension reduction for being under age 55, but he did so, he said to meet the deadline “and after hearing that no incentives … would be offered. I received an e-mail from Human Resources (that) stated such. Now three weeks later we’re hearing about the incentives being offered and feel that we were coerced into early retirement without any incentives … .”

Ironically, some insiders say that offering the buyouts after long denying them could backfire on the Postal Service.

Many postal workers are contacting colleagues and people who follow federal affairs, amid rumors of a $25,000 buyout down the road, to decide whether to take the $15,000 or hold out.

Postal officials and union watchers say the rumor of a bigger buyout in the wind is not true. Given the state of the postal purse, that is probably true.

But then again, people were scoffing at the idea of any kind of a buyout just six months ago.

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