- The Washington Times - Monday, February 2, 2004

From June to January, the federal government authorized more than 8,100 buyouts — payments of up to $25,000 before deductions — to help agencies reshape themselves and take care of “skills imbalances” caused by downsizing, retirement and changing mission goals.

The Department of Defense plans to cover buyouts to 25,000 civilian workers in Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Air Force and other Department of Defense components between now and the end of September. The actual number could be higher if there are base closings that cost civilians, such as commissary workers, their jobs.

Defense is using, and other agencies are eyeing, the relatively new national security, or “reshaping,” buyouts that are easier to get and less costly. Under the plan, agencies can refill jobs vacated by buyout takers and don’t have to kick in several thousand dollars — in addition to the buyout itself — to the federal pension fund.

The old-style buyouts, which started in 1993, were so cumbersome that smart (and shifty) agencies learned to run to Congress for help rather than jumping through all the hoops required to get a buyout.

A rapid expansion of the buyout program in large and small agencies could benefit younger workers (a rarity in many federal agencies) who have been stuck in the slow-moving promotion pipeline and who are the first to go if agencies decide they must downsize.

After deductions the 1993 model buyouts are worth $15,000 to $18,000. Horror stories about some employees spending the large lump sum payment unwisely prompted the Pentagon to offer workers the option of getting the payments in installments every two weeks. That should help with taxes, too.

Buyouts are limited to employees who have been on the Defense payroll for a year or more, who have not received a RIF (reduction in force layoff) notice and who don’t have another federal job waiting for them. Generally speaking, members of the Senior Executive Service are not eligible for buyouts. But the law contains a provision by which the buyouts can be granted to the highest-paid feds in rare circumstances.

Brain drain

The dreaded mass exodus of top-notch, experienced feds from the government has not materialized. In fact, retirement levels are down.

The experts looked at the numbers and the rapidly aging federal work force and put two and two together and got three. What they didn’t anticipate (like the rest of us) was the stock market crash. It caused the Thrift Savings Plan (401(k) plan) accounts of many feds to plunge to the point where they were afraid to give up a regular paycheck.

The dismal job market, especially outside the Washington area, is another reason the brain drain didn’t happen.

But now the outside job market is improving, especially for experienced feds who have their own health insurance coverage. So we may get a brain drain later, rather than sooner.

Mike Causey, senior editor at FederalNewsRadio.com, can be reached at 202/895-5132 or [email protected]

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