The First Responder Fair RETIRE Act, which became law on Dec. 9 after the Senate passed it unanimously in November, gives tens of thousands of Customs and Border patrol officials, firefighters, law enforcement officers and other public safety officials the ability to keep benefitting from the retirement system they’ve been paying into, even if they pivot to a different federal job after getting hurt.
It also clears the way for these employees to receive a refund of their contributions if they separate from service before reaching their annuity.
Before the legislation passed with much support from federal unions and employee organizations, federal policy prevented a public safety employee from retiring under the same specialty system if they could no longer continue working due to an a work-related disability.
That upended “years of service to this nation and responsible planning for the future,” said Ken Thomas, national president of the National Active and Retired Federal Employees Association, in a statement.
A recent report from the Government Accountability Office about recruitment for federal firefighters found this was a significant problem facing the workforce. Some firefighters are not just unable, but unwilling, to return to their original job post-injury and would therefore lose their special retirement benefits, which the report found may affect retention, especially of women firefighters.
The new law focuses on benefit parity for designated “6c” jobs, for which Congress created an accelerated retirement system. That meant that these workers had an earlier mandatory retirement date, and thus had to set aside a larger chunk of their paycheck toward benefits.
“They would still be able to retire after 20 years of federal service and will also be eligible to receive a lump sum payment of the benefits owed from their 6c retirement funds,” Sen. Jon Tester of Montana said in a statement.
The bill’s language also touches on pay, saying the government should ensure that individuals who can no longer work their public-safety job due to injury should be paid proportionately if they are reappointed to a different job within the same agency and in the same location.
The House took up the bill and passed it unanimously in July after it was introduced by Democratic Congressman Gerry Connolly of Virginia, Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (R-PA), and Rep. Jim Langevin (D-RI). Sen. Tester first introduced the bipartisan legislation in the Senate in 2016.
“I thank Senator Tester for his unwavering support in getting the First Responder Fair RETIRE Act across the finish line and President Biden for signing it into law,” said Rep. Connolly in a statement. “Our bipartisan legislation will ensure federal firefighters, law enforcement officials, Border Patrol officers, and other federal first responders qualify for full retirement benefits if they are injured on the job.”
Molly Weisner is a staff reporter for Federal Times where she covers labor, policy and contracting pertaining to the government workforce. She made previous stops at USA Today and McClatchy as a digital producer, and worked at The New York Times as a copy editor. Molly majored in journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.