Category

Federal Pay

Labor Dept. Denies Request That Excepted Feds Be Eligible for Unemployment

By | Federal Pay, Retirement | No Comments

Labor Secretary Alex Acosta has rejected an effort by District of Columbia Mayor Muriel Bowser to allow federal employees working without pay during the partial government shutdown to be eligible for unemployment benefits while agencies remain shuttered.

On Monday, Bowser sent a letter to Acosta requesting the change in policy. Currently, furloughed federal workers and idle contractors in a number of states can apply for unemployment, although they are expected to return the money when they return to work and Congress has approved back pay. But excepted employees, whose pay is guaranteed once the government reopens, cannot apply for unemployment.

In the letter, Bowser said it is unfair that employees working without pay are effectively in worse financial straits despite arguably sacrificing more during a shutdown.

“These federal workers are providing the nation and our region with vital services such as public safety,” she wrote. “Without a steady paycheck or unemployment benefits, hardworking federal workers and their families are forced to make difficult decisions: pay the mortgage or buy groceries; pay for a doctor’s appointment or pay to keep the lights on. These are decisions no one should have to make.”

But on Thursday, Bowser reported that her request was denied and decried the decision. She noted that in Washington, D.C., alone, more than 7,500 furloughed federal workers and contractors had already filed for unemployment. That number increases to roughly 9,000 federal workers, not including contractors, in the D.C. metro area.

“Federal workers and their families continue to pay the highest price for this unnecessary and unprecedented shutdown,” Bowser said in a statement. “It is unconscionable for the Trump administration to acknowledge that these individuals are working without pay and with no end in sight, but will not make the smallest effort to help them by allowing states to offer unemployment insurance benefits.”

The line between federal workers who are furloughed and excepted is shifting, as agencies like the IRS recall significant numbers of workers to restore services despite the lapse in appropriations. Observers have been vocal in questioning the legality of such decisions, and the constantly loosening interpretation of what constitutes the protection of life and property is the subject of a lawsuit by the National Treasury Employees Union.

Friday marked the end of the second full pay period of the shutdown, which is in its 28th day. Agencies will be required to send out new furlough notices next week, as the shutdown passes the 30-day mark. If a deal to reopen the government is not reached by Tuesday, employees of unfunded agencies likely will miss their second straight paycheck.

It’s Official: Furloughed Feds Will Receive Back Pay Once the Shutdown Ends

By | Benefits, Federal Pay | No Comments

 

Why Retirement Processing Takes So Long

By | Benefits, Federal Pay, Retirement, TSP | No Comments

The busiest time of the year for retirement claims processing at the Office of Personnel Management is fast approaching. At the end of November, OPM had an inventory of 19,162 unprocessed retirement applications. This will most likely significantly increase over the next few months, because many federal employees plan their retirements at the end of the year in order to maximize their lump sum payout of unused annual leave.

The spike in end-of-leave-year retirements presents a number of challenges for retirement processing. According to a recent OPM inspector general report, the timely processing of initial retirement payments remains a challenge for the agency. OPM’s 2018-2022 strategic plan sets a target of achieving an average case processing time of 60 days or less. The agency’s Retirement Services unit appears to have met that goal in fiscal 2018, with an average of 59 days. But its claims backlog as of September was 17,628, more than 4.5 percent higher than at the same time a year ago.

According to the IG report, the steps Retirement Services is taking to address delays in processing include:

  • Continue to integrate improvements for correspondence and claims processing.
  • Enhance reporting tools to monitor and address Retirement Services workloads.
  • Use overtime to assist with timely processing.
  • Work with the agency’s chief information officer to explore new uses of technology to help improve processing and reduce wait times.
  • Provide monthly feedback to agencies and payroll offices and alert them of trends and improvement opportunities.
  • Identify training needs for agencies and conduct workshops on the retirement application process.

Once your retirement application is in the hands of OPM, there’s not much you can do but wait. But there are steps you can take beforehand to help ensure the process runs as smoothly as possible:

  • Double-check your application to make sure you’ve answered all of the questions on it. Complete your application electronically, if possible. OPM will not accept corrections in certain sections of the application form.  We will assist or completely fill this paperwork out and mail or email it to you.
  • Keep a copy of your completed application.
  • Be sure to complete the Marital Information and Annuity Election sections of the application. That applies whether you’re married, single, widowed or divorced. If you’re married, be sure to include a copy of your marriage certificate with your  application. If you’re divorced, you only need to include a copy of your court order or divorce decree if there was a portion of your retirement or survivor annuity awarded to your former spouse.
  • If you’re married and your spouse is waiving their right to the maximum spousal survivor annuity, be sure to have their signature notarized on the Spouse’s Consent to Survivor Election portion of the application.
  • If you’ve performed active duty military service, be sure you’ve included the documentation of your service and information related to military retired pay in Schedules A and B of the application.
  • Be sure to document that you’ve had five years of coverage under Federal Employees Health Benefits Program, especially if you were covered under your spouse’s FEHBP plan or you’re using coverage under TRICARE within five years of your retirement. According to an OPM training video, 20 percent of all retirement errors involve not documenting five years of FEHBP coverage.

For those of you who will be retiring from federal service in the next few weeks, let us be among the first to congratulate you and wish you a wonderful and rewarding life after government.

If you need any assistance on reviewing prior to separating, we do complete Federal Retirement Reviews, all the way from planning and preparing for your retirement, filling out retirement form packages, TSP rollovers, Pension Maximization, talk FEHP vs Medicare.  Contact Us to request your Retirement Review and Assistance today. 

See Who Would Get Furloughed in a End of the Year Shutdown

By | Benefits, Federal Pay, Retirement | No Comments

The federal government is about a week away from shutting down, though only about 41 percent of civilians report to agencies at risk of having their doors shuttered.

Congress has already allocated a majority of full-year spending, with President Trump signing legislation that accounts for 75 percent of annual discretionary appropriations. Those bills set line-by-line spending for the departments of Defense, Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, Energy and Veterans Affairs, among other agencies.

The departments of Transportation, Housing and Urban Development, State, Interior, Agriculture, Treasury, Commerce, Homeland Security and Justice, as well as other independent agencies, are currently operating under a continuing resolution set to expire Dec. 21. Those agencies will be forced to shut down after that date if Congress fails to act.

About 850,000 employees work at those agencies, and about 345,000, or 41 percent, of them would be subject to furloughs under a partial shutdown, according to the most recent data federal agencies have made available on their contingency planning. An update to Office of Management and Budget guidance during the Obama administration required agencies to refresh their shutdown plans at least every two years starting in 2015.

The plans vary significantly from agency to agency, with some enabling nearly their entire workforces to continue working because of the funding stream that pays their salaries or because their jobs are necessary to protect life and property. Other agencies, such as NASA or the Housing and Urban Development Department, would send home about 95 percent of their employees. Those working during a shutdown must go without pay until the government reopens, while furloughed workers are not guaranteed back pay at all. Historically, Congress has always taken action to provide those lost wages.

Some agencies have changed their plans drastically, following 2017 guidance from OMB Director Mick Mulvaney that instructed them to use “carry-forward funding” and “transfer authority” as much as possible to mitigate the impact of an appropriations lapse. Last year, for example, the Environmental Protection Agency planned to furlough 95 percent of its employees during a shutdown. This year, it will use unexpired multi-year and no-year funding to keep nearly its entire workforce on the job, sending home only a portion of the inspector general’s office.

Some agencies, such as the State Department, have updated their plans but have not spelled out exactly who would be furloughed. During the 16-day shutdown in 2013, State sent home just a few hundred of its 70,000 employees, but warned it would have had to add thousands to that list if the government had remained closed much longer.

Below is a chart detailing the furlough rates of every agency with more than 1,000 employees that would be subject to a shutdown come Dec. 21:

Some Secrets To A Financially Secure Retirement

By | Benefits, Federal Pay, Retirement, TSP | No Comments

What is the best way to ensure a comfortable and enjoyable retirement? This week, I thought I’d share some observations I’ve made over the years about employees who end up with the same (and sometimes even greater) income during their retirement years than while they were employed.

These folks have been planning for retirement throughout the beginning, middle and pre-retirement stages of the federal careers. I sometimes meet employees who tell me they remember me from a retirement planning class they attended 20 years ago.

For those covered under the Federal Employees Retirement System, the Thrift Savings Plan has played an important role. These people have learned how to invest for the long term and what it means to diversify their investments among the G, C, F, S, and I Funds—or used the L Funds to automatically shift their investments as their careers progress. They have learned to tolerate a certain level of risk in order to obtain maximum results by not reacting emotionally to swings in market conditions.

FERS employees who have successfully leveraged their TSP accounts tend to have several things in common:

  • Those in higher income brackets are saving the maximum in their TSP accounts. The maximum employee contribution for 2019 is $19,000 plus an additional $6,000 in catch-up contributions if you’re turning 50 or are already older than 50.
  • Those in lower income brackets are living with little or no consumer debt and have saved a minimum of 5 percent of their salary in the TSP.
  • In general, they haven’t borrowed from their TSP account—or if they have, they didn’t stop contributing while repaying their loan balance.

The TSP was designed to be an integral part of FERS, but many employees under the Civil Service Retirement System also have taken advantage of participating in the plan and putting away savings on a pre-tax basis. They now have a significant nest egg for retirement.

Successful planners who are married have considered the “what-if” situations about the future. For example:

  • They weigh the value and cost of the spousal survivor benefit election. This causes a reduction in your CSRS or FERS retirement of about 10 percent, but it can mean the difference between financial security and uncertainty for a surviving spouse.
  • They consider that a delay in claiming Social Security may be more important to a future surviving spouse than to a couple’s short-term need for income. You may have other options than taking Social Security as soon as you can: delaying retirement, taking larger TSP distributions while waiting to claim Social Security, or embarking on a second career for a few years after your retirement from government. The difference between claiming at age 62 and waiting until age 70 is a benefit that is about 75 percent larger for the rest of your life and possibly later to the life of your surviving spouse.
  • They’re wary of using life insurance as a substitute for a survivor benefit. Life insurance is very expensive to continue as a substitute for a survivor’s annuity. Life insurance also doesn’t carry a cost of living adjustment or a guaranteed lifetime payment stream. And life insurance is not protected under the spouse equity provisions of the law, so it can be canceled without spousal consent.

Single people who have successfully planned for retirement have considered the amount of income they will need for a retirement that could potentially last longer than their career. This means both adequate retirement savings and thinking about such considerations as the potential need for long-term care.

If you’re a single woman, you may have a longer life expectancy than your male counterparts, and you also may have had lower lifetime earnings. This could translate into a need to save diligently for retirement and become a savvy investor. You need to put yourself first to ensure your financial independence before helping others.

Those who have successfully managed the retirement preparation process have another thing in common: They’re realistic. They, may, for example, limit the financial assistance they provide to their children in retirement to protect their savings. And some of them find that working a little longer than they anticipated eases the future financial strain. Sometimes following the path to a comfortable retirement involves some hard choices.

Which ever category you may fall in, its always best to ask a Federal Benefits Consultant how you are doing and let us help guide you to make sure you are maximizing all of your resources properly. Request your Free Consultation today. 

TSP Finally Unveils Plans for Expanding TSP Withdrawal Options

By | Benefits, Federal Pay, Retirement, TSP | No Comments

The Thrift Savings Plan has until November to implement the 2017 TSP Modernization Act. That law will allow federal employees and retirees to make multiple age-based withdrawals from their TSP accounts and remain eligible for partial withdrawals after they leave government. Additionally, those who have left government would be able to make multiple partial post-separation withdrawals, and retirees will be able to change the amount and frequency of their annuity at any time, instead of only once per year.

Tanner Nohe, a project manager for the TSP, said the agency plans to have the law fully implemented by mid-September 2019. The project has caused officials to go beyond simply adding the functionality needed to implement the new law and instead “make some fundamental changes” to how withdrawals work, he said.

Under the new system, participants will no longer be forced to make a full withdrawal election—a choice between setting up annuity payments, taking a partial lump sum withdrawal, or a full lump sum payment—when they reach 70 and a half years old. That change will be retroactive, officials said.

“People on installment payments now, and [next year] they can come back and say, ‘I want to stop taking installments for a while,’” said Tee Ramos, director of participant services.

Nohe said his team is coming up with three new forms to help participants make use of the new flexibilities, including one that allows participants to change the amount and frequency of their annuity payments at any time. The agency is also doing away with a policy that suspends a participants’ contributions to their TSP accounts for six months if they take a hardship withdrawal.

“You can change your monthly installment payments currently only during [a fall open season period],” Nohe said. “But in the future, you can choose between monthly, quarterly and annual installment payments, and changes can be made to that at any time during the year.”

TSP officials said they plan not only to provide new flexibilities to participants, but make it easier to make use of those flexibilities. Nohe touted the fact that there will be four new “wizards” on the TSP website to help federal employees and retirees go through the various new processes.

“Right now, our wizards are just form fillers, but [next year], they will be more dynamic,” he said. “It can tell what’s in your account, and ask if you want to take [withdrawals] out of your Roth distribution or your traditional account. It’ll understand what you have so it can suggest what distribution you can take . . . It will take you from start to finish in your withdrawal.”

The first phase of implementation, focused on installment payment maintenance and removal of the withdrawal selection deadline, is slated to go into testing within the next two weeks, Nohe said. The public rollout of the new features is slated to occur on Sept. 15, although TSP officials will begin communicating with participants about the coming changes next February.

»To get the best federal retirement assistance and ideas about your benefits, request your free Federal Retirement Review.

TSP Funds Took a Nosedive in October

By | Benefits, Federal Pay, TSP | No Comments

Nearly all of the funds in the federal government’s 401(k)-style retirement savings program tumbled last month, mirroring a month of volatility in the financial markets.

The Thrift Savings Plan’s G Fund, which is made up of government securities, was the only portfolio in the black in October, gaining 0.26 percent. That brings its total 2018 earnings to 2.38 percent.

The S Fund, composed of small- and mid-size businesses, lost the most value last month, falling 10.06 percent. That brought the portfolio 0.30 percent into the negative since January. The international stocks of the I Fund fell 7.94 percent in October, bringing its 2018 losses to 8.92 percent.

The common stocks of the C Fund lost 6.84 percent last month, although the fund remains 2.98 percent in the black for 2018. And the fixed income (F) Fund fell 0.78 percent in October, bringing its losses so far this year to 2.26 percent.

All of the lifecycle (L) funds, which shift investments into more stable portfolios as participants get closer to retirement, lost value last month. The L Income Fund, for those who have already started withdrawing money, lost 1.40 percent; L 2020, 2.24 percent; L 2030, 4.60 percent; L 2040, 5.54 percent; and L 2050, 6.35 percent.

Since January, the L Income Fund has grown 1.52 percent; L 2020, 1.21 percent; and L 2030, 0.12 percent. The L 2040 Fund has fallen 0.35 percent this year, and the L 2050 is down 0.74 percent.

Get your Free Federal Retirement and TSP Review Today.  Sign up here.

Federal Officers Association Asks OPM to Roll Back 2016 Annuity Change

By | Benefits, Federal Pay, Retirement | No Comments

A group representing the federal law enforcement community last week sent a letter to acting OPM Director Margaret Weichert asking her to roll back an Obama administration decision to change how payments to divorced retirees are distributed to them and their former spouses.

The Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association, which represents more than 27,000 federal law enforcement professionals across 65 agencies, blasted a 2016 OPM decision to grant a “marital share” of the Federal Employees Retirement System Retiree Annuity Supplement to a retiree’s ex-spouse if the retiree is subject to a state divorce decree. Before that decision, the agency would only grant that share based on the basic annuity.

The retiree annuity supplement is the money that is paid to retirees who are not yet eligible for Social Security, which kicks in at age 62. Many law enforcement positions force officers to retire at 57. For decades, the supplement was not subject to a court-ordered marital share because OPM considered it to be a Social Security-type benefit, and thus not part of a divorce agreement.

“This policy change constituted an unwarranted reinterpretation of a 30-year old provision of the FERS statute and, more importantly, has caused real financial harm to federal law enforcement and other retirees for the more than two years that it has been enforced by the agency,” wrote association National President Nathan Catura.

In addition, the association said that OPM has applied the policy retroactively, leading to many officers suddenly owing money to the government to send to former spouses.

“[In] the more than two years since it implemented this revised policy, OPM has applied its reinterpretation retroactively and with little to no regard for the financial harm it has inflicted on retirees,” Catura wrote. “It has created individual retiree debts due to the federal government of as much as $28,389.96 (that we are aware of)—debts for which OPM has sought repayment in the form of prospective and retrospective assessments from annuitants’ retirement benefits.”

The decision to apply marital share to the annuity supplement has drawn criticism from both Congress and an agency watchdog. Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., wrote in May that the policy change could constitute a violation of the Administrative Procedures Act, and the OPM Inspector General issued a report in February questioning the manner in which the policy was changed outside of the traditional rule-making process.

“OPM did not provide any public notice that it now considers the annuity supplement to be allocable and that, as a result, OPM will now apply the state court-ordered marital share to the annuity supplement, even when the state court order refers to the basic annuity only,” the IG wrote. “[OPM’s] new policy has been causing immediate financial disruption to annuitants. Moreover, OPM’s new policy improperly changes previously litigated final state court orders without notice to annuitants.”

OPM did not respond to a request for comment, but it disagreed with each of the findings of the IG report and suggested the report could jeopardize pending cases before the Merit Systems Protections Board. In April, the MSPB overturned a decision in which OPM sought to collect $24,000 in debt from a retired air traffic controller related to the policy change.

“As Sen. Lankford, the OIG, and MSPB have concluded, this policy change was implemented in a clandestine fashion without any regard for the court-ordered and previously-litigated provisions of the specific divorce settlements of affected retirees,” Catura wrote. “Instead, retirees and their former spouses only learned of OPM’s actions when their annuity payments changed, in some cases years after the parties had divorced and a state court had ordered a former spouse’s marital share.”

*To Learn more about your retirement benefits and what is best for you, request your free retirement consultation by visiting our contact us page.

Federal Retirees to Receive BIGGEST COLA Boost in Years

By | Benefits, Federal Pay | No Comments

Federal retirees will receive a cost-of-living adjustment of 2.8 percent in their benefits next year, the largest increase in more than a decade.

The boost—which applies more broadly to recipients of Social Security benefits—comes on top of a 2 percent boost in 2018. That increase came after a couple of years of very low percentage COLAs. The 2017 increase was only 0.3 percent.

The annual COLA is based on the percentage increase in the average Consumer Price Index for Urban Wage Earners and Clerical Workers (CPI-W) for the third quarter of the current year over the average CPI-W for the third quarter of the last year in which a COLA became effective.

The 2.8 percent increase applies to retirees under the Civil Service Retirement System. Those under the Federal Employees Retirement System will receive 2 percent. FERS employees only receive the full percentage increase if it is less than 2 percent. If the change is 2 percent to 3 percent, FERS retirees get 2 percent. And if the increase is 3 percent or higher, FERS retirees receive 1 percentage point less than the full increase.

“CSRS retirees and Social Security recipients will be pleased to see their benefits increase by 2.8 percent in 2019, the largest increase since 2012,” said Richard Thissen, president of the National Active and Retired Federal Employees Association. “Unfortunately, hundreds of thousands of FERS retirees will be wondering why they are only receiving a 2 percent COLA when the relevant measure of consumer prices increased by 2.8 percent.”

“It is past time for Congress to ensure FERS retirees receive a full COLA each year,” Thissen added.

Tony Reardon, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, said, “As retired federal employees welcome the increase in their monthly pensions in 2019, it’s a good time to remind them and all future retirees that such routine cost-of-living adjustments cannot be taken for granted. The administration has not given up its plan to eliminate COLAs for federal employees who retire through the Federal Employee Retirement System, and severely cut them for those in the Civil Service Retirement System.”

The new COLAs will take effect starting with federal retirees’ December 2018 benefits.

Now for those wanting to retire soon and take advantage of this full COLA for 2019, must be retired by October 31, 2018.  Give us a call Today, or contact us and learn more about this and how we will help you.  You may still have time.

How Attempts at Fixing the Civil Service System Have Made It Worse Off

By | Benefits, Federal Pay | No Comments

Federal human resources officials on Wednesday said that congressional efforts to fix an outdated civil service system have complicated it as much as they have improved it.

Lawmakers have repeatedly taken a piecemeal approach to providing relief to laws governing the federal workforce that date back to the 19th century and were last updated on a wholesale basis in 1978, but federal officials said those agency-by-agency and job-by-job laws have created an overly layered and disparate series of special authorities. The HR professionals made their comments at a panel discussion in downtown Washington, D.C., hosted by Government Executive.

“Over the years we’ve seen special authorities, special regulations solve specific problems,” said Mary Pletcher, the Agriculture Department’s chief human capital officer. “But what it’s also done is create a very complicated system.”

Get the free Federal Retirement Analysis today and maximize your retirement.  Request Retirement Review Here.

Col. Gregory Johnson, chief of the Army’s Functional Management Division, Integrated Personnel and Pay System, said the military maintains 300 different pay systems. Those have piled up over the course of several decades, he said, and are now posing problems for the Defense Department.

“How do you understand soldiers’ talent in the military, how do you manage 1.1 million people when you have that many systems that are disparate, where the data is fractured?” he asked. “How do you do that?”

Johnson said the Army is seeking to address that question by creating an Integrated Personnel and Pay System, a project he is spearheading. The goal is to centralize all the data from all the different systems into one place, clean it up and use it to evaluate the workforce. This will enable a whole new personnel management system, he explained, and allow the Army to better evaluate each soldier’s talents to better match them to the service’s needs.

The Army is unveiling the system in phases, starting with the National Guard next year. By 2020, it will fold all Reserve and active-duty personnel into the integrated system. Johnson said those initiatives will help change the overall ethos at the Army.

“We’ve been around for a long time and culture change is hard,” he said. “So as we take a look at our current personnel processes and try to drive a talent management process, the system will help us change.”

While the military is moving the ball forward on HR simplification and consolidation, Pletcher said the civil service laws and regulations applying to civilian employees have become so complicated that very few people in government actually understand all of them. Meanwhile, she explained, lengthy hiring times and career ladder climbing have remained rigid. That has all added up to agencies losing out on top talent.

“All of the special legislative authorities, the pilot authorities…the intent is to solve specific problems, but they create even more complexity because we still haven’t changed the underlying system,” Pletcher said.

Agencies do have flexibilities, she said, but they struggle to educate their managers on what they are, how they work and whether they are legally applicable in certain situations.

“The amount of knowledge that’s required to navigate all of those different flexibilities, all of the different ways to make the system work more, while they may exist, they add a lot of complexity,” Pletcher said. “And some human capital officers say they have too many authorities right now.”

That has complicated things not just for HR professionals but for hiring managers as well, some of whom only bring on a few employees each year and struggle to keep track of all the latest authorities. Pletcher estimated USDA will hire 8,000 permanent employees and 15,000 seasonal workers next year, and each job category will come with its own recruiting challenge.

Johnson explained in blunt terms the dichotomy between what soldiers currently face in their day-to-day jobs versus what they deal with when making broader career decisions.

“We ask soldiers to go in and make life and death decisions,” Johnson said, “but we don’t really tell them what their personnel actions are.”