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The fight over rehiring retirees

May. 25, 2009 - 06:00AM   |  
By REBECCA NEAL   |   Comments

A bill that would allow agencies to rehire retired employees won approval of a Senate committee last week. But, despite measures designed to appease unions, it still faces opposition from labor groups.

The bill would create a five-year pilot program allowing agencies to rehire retirees and pay them their full salary and their full annuity. Currently, personnel rules don't allow retirees to collect their full salaries and annuities without special waivers from the Office of Personnel Management. The Senate bill would allow agencies to rehire retirees without having to get such waivers.

Although the bill, S 629, enjoys support from lawmakers of both parties, the Obama administration and several federal associations, its fate is uncertain because of opposition from federal unions. Unions fear that rehiring retirees even on a temporary basis will undermine the hiring of new employees and thwart promotions of current federal employees.

"Managers would have complete discretion to hire annuitants of their choice, without any regard to veterans preference, or any objective, competitive criteria," Beth Moten, legislative and political director for the American Federation of Government Employees, wrote in a letter last week to Sen. Joseph Lieberman, I-Conn., chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.

The committee approved the bill on a near-unanimous voice vote May 20. The only holdout was Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, who abstained even as he praised the bill as important in helping "deal with an impending brain drain." Akaka said he chose not to vote until he has had time to speak with unions and ensure the bill addresses more of their concerns.

The National Treasury Employees Union also opposes the bill. The union's national president, Colleen Kelley, said the bill was "unnecessary because a system already exists to bring back retirees without offsetting their pensions."

In hopes of quelling that opposition, supporters of the bill added numerous restrictions on the rehiring of retirees.

Help with stimulus workloads

The author of the bill, Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, said the bill is needed because agencies are straining under stimulus-fueled workloads, and they need experienced employees who can hit the ground running. Agencies across government have need for experienced auditors, acquisition staff and other specialists, not only to help with added stimulus work, but also to help train new employees coming aboard as part of a multiyear hiring surge.

"It provides opportunities for federal agencies to meet their surge needs in part, and it's also in the best interest of taxpayers," Collins told her committee colleagues last week.

Federal manager groups applaud the bill.

"The federal government has a distinct lack of mentoring and training. ... Who's better to train a successor than the person who just left the job?" said Jessica Klement, government affairs director for the Federal Managers Association, which supports the bill.

Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., ranking member of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, said many employees retire young and search for other employment, and the government should use that talent pool instead of letting it go.

"We'd be crazy not to compete with the private companies for these highly experienced workers," he said.

Issa said he and Democrats and Republicans on the House committee are eager to work with the unions to make the bill more palatable.

A Republican staff member of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee said the committee staffers have had numerous discussions with OPM and the Obama administration about the bill. The staffer said the administration told them it wouldn't oppose the bill and Collins is hopeful about passage.

Collins said it's worth noting that this version of the bill has stricter limits on how long retirees can be rehired compared with the version that didn't progress very far in the last session of Congress.

The bill contains several limitations on how long federal retirees can return without an OPM waiver:

No more than 520 hours in the six months after the retiree starts collecting his annuity.

No more than 1,040 hours in any one-year period.

No more than 3,120 hours total.

It also states that the number of annuitants hired by an agency through the bill cannot exceed 2.5 percent of the total number of full-time employees at the agency. If the number exceeds 1 percent, the agency head must submit a report to the House and Senate oversight committees and OPM justifying the need for more waivers.

"We're hopeful the changes would satisfy the unions' concerns," the staffer said, adding that there will be further tweaking of the bill before it's introduced on its own or as part of another bill on the Senate floor.

Issa said he rejects the unions' arguments that granting this authority will result in retirees becoming entrenched in their temporary positions. The bill would provide for a quicker, smoother transition between generations, he said.

Lieberman said he supports the bill but wants to discuss the unions' concerns with Collins and her staff.

"I know there are some concerns that agencies may be tempted to overuse, bringing back annuitants who are not best for the job or blocking the potential for advancement for younger personnel," he said.

Sen. George Voinovich, R-Ohio, one of the bill's co-sponsors, said agencies will benefit from using retirees' knowledge, citing the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's use of retirees to train new hires. He said he suggested to OPM Director John Berry that rehiring authority should be granted across the board to various agencies "because many will need this to meet the stimulus bill's demands."

Eager retirees

The National Active and Retired Federal Employees Association, which supports the bill, has heard from some retirees looking to go back to work. Some need more money because of the recession, while others want to be part of the recovery efforts, said Dan Adcock, NARFE's legislative director.

"They see what's going on and want to do their part. They may have experience with procurement and have special skill sets like auditing that have been impacted by the stimulus bill," he said.

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