Some federal workers say they’ve already decided to retire if forced to go back to the office while the coronavirus pandemic is still raging.
That could leave U.S. agencies hobbled without key personnel as they shift into the third and final phase of the White House’s post-pandemic reopening plan. Some bureaus, such as the Environmental Protection Agency, have been pushing to reopen their doors at a pace that employees say isn’t supported by the infection and death rate data.
The trend could hit agencies with older workers particularly hard, including the EPA and the Internal Revenue Service.
Federal employees, as a group, have “very high retirement eligibility and very reasonable fears about being pushed back” to their desks, said Max Stier, president of the Partnership for Public Service. “If you put people in a position where they don’t feel safe, they will leave.”
A half dozen EPA employees have told Bloomberg Law they’ve made a cost-benefit calculation and concluded it’s not worth risking their health by venturing outdoors, riding public transit, and working in offices anytime soon.
Andrea Medici, an EPA attorney and chief steward of the National Treasury Employees Union (NTEU) Chapter 280, which represents some 2,000 agency employees, confirmed that “multiple people” have told her they would retire if the only other choice is to return to the office. Most of them are either eligible for retirement or close to it, Medici said.
But as coronavirus cases spike nationwide—with more than five million confirmed cases and 163,000 deaths according to data compiled by Bloomberg News—even some staffers who aren’t close to retirement are making that decision, including one who had planned on working until 2025. That source now says he will retire immediately if his office opens while infection and death rates are still high.
“I would take quite a bit of a hit on my retirement benefits if I retired now, but I’m in a high-risk category for dying or suffering worse effects from the virus,” said the Midwest-based staffer, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “I don’t want to go back in an unsafe environment.”
The EPA has shifted several of its offices into Phase 2 of its reopening plan, including its Washington, D.C., headquarters. Employees aren’t yet required to be in the office, but the agency has said it will take at least five weeks from the moment an office first moves into the reopening process until Phase 3, when workers are expected to return.
In late 2019, EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler said some 40% of the agency’s workforce would be eligible to retire over the next five years.
Retirements at EPA
When asked how a wave of retirements would hurt the agency’s ability to fulfill its mission, EPA Spokesman James Hewitt said,"retirement is a very personal decision.”
The agency “values its workforce and the knowledge our senior career employees bring to carrying out its mission,” Hewitt said, adding that staff will only be called back to the office “when we believe that it is safe for employees to return.”
Staff who are in high-risk categories, including those who might be eligible to retire, are also being allowed to telecommute even once an office is in Phase 3, he said.
Doug Benevento, the EPA’s associate deputy administrator, recently told Bloomberg Law that staff will only be required to be in the office one day for each of the first two weeks of Phase 3. Beyond that, employees can continue to telecommute for up to two more months, and possibly longer, Benevento said.
Retirements at IRS
Debbie Mullikin, an Internal Revenue Service employee and the president of NTEU Chapter 73 in Covington, Ky., said she’s already seeing colleagues taking retirement when they might have continued to work—but for a different reason.
In Mullikin’s view, IRS staffers are leaving the agency because they feel mistreated by management. Most agency employees are still teleworking, but they nevertheless have been left “feeling squeezed, frustrated, and like management sees them as widgets rather than fellow humans,” she said.
Even some IRS staffers who aren’t eligible for retirement are thinking about quitting, Mullikin said.
The IRS said last week that it’s recently seen an increase in retirements on a week-to-week basis after a sharp decrease during the first few months of the Covid-19 emergency. Overall, retirements are down about 29% this fiscal year compared to the same time frame in 2019. But the agency noted its year ends Sept. 30, and August and September tend to be higher retirement months.
Chad Hooper, national president of the Professional Managers Association, which represents the interests of IRS managers and supervisors, said there does seem to be a recent uptick in retirements tied to the virus, based on anecdotes. But he said it appears to be more from people realizing life is short and they want to spend more time with their families—rather than from fear of coming to the office.
Retirements driven by worker recalls may not be visible in statistics yet, as roughly three-quarters of all IRS employees are still teleworking either partially or full-time, according to figures provided by the agency. The agency also exempted high-risk individuals from otherwise mandatory recalls announced earlier this summer following facility closures stemming from Covid-19.
The IRS, like the EPA, has an aging workforce. The agency said about 46% of its employees are eligible for retirement within the next two years.
Tony Reardon, national president of the NTEU, said it’s “understandable” employees who are eligible may choose to retire because of the pandemic.
Reardon said it would be “especially unfortunate to lose highly-skilled, veteran civil servants because they do not believe the federal government is able to provide a safe environment for them at work.”
About 18% of federal workers were eligible to retire at the end of March, according to the Partnership for Public Service.
Older people are at greater risk for Covid-19. And about 45% of the federal workforce is over age 50, according to the Partnership’s data.
Given those figures, a return to federal offices before people believe it’s safe could result in more retirements, said Jeff Neal, the top human resources official at the Department of Homeland Security during the Obama administration. He now writes about federal personnel issues on his ChiefHRO blog.
This is a problem, particularly because federal agencies generally haven’t shown themselves to be very effective in attracting young people, Neal said.
“The government doesn’t market itself as an employer very well” and the process for applying for federal jobs is cumbersome, generally taking much longer than it does in the private sector, he said.
About 14.8% of the federal workforce is currently eligible to retire with a “full annuity,” Office of Personnel Management spokesman Tim Rice said on Monday. OPM acts as the government’s central human resources agency. “We decline to comment on potential retirement plans of individual federal employees,” he said.
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