Pay and Benefits Watch: No relief in sight

Thousands of federal employees who were placed in the wrong retirement system are stuck in limbo, and members of Congress appear to be in no rush to help them out.

Many employees affected by the mistake have been trying for years to get help through a maze of bureaucratic and legislative obstacles, to no avail. (For more background information, click here.) Last year, the House approved a bill that would correct the problem. But the Senate adjourned without addressing the bill.

Early this year, the House Government Reform Committee took quick action on H.R. 416, which would correct the error, which has left many civil servants worried that their pensions will be much smaller than they had expected. The committee approved the bill at its first meeting of the new Congress.

But now changes may need to be made to the tax and Social Security provisions of the bill before it goes to a vote. House Government Reform Committee staffers are working with other Hill staffers to find a way to get the bill passed, but they aren't committing to a timetable.

On the Senate side, a bill hasn't even been introduced yet. A Senate aide said Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., is planning on introducing a bill, but hasn't committed to a time frame either. Observers shouldn't expect Cochran to introduce a bill until after Congress' April recess, the aide said.

Letter carrier Arenda Corbin has been waiting four years for a solution to the retirement error that left her in the wrong system. "I have to do my job in a timely manner, correctly, the first time, every time," Corbin said, wondering why the same standard doesn't apply to the people who should correct the retirement error.

Energy Department employee Barry Schrum is also exasperated at how long it's taking for a fix.

"For four years and especially the last year, Congress has allowed itself to be sidetracked on issues which do not affect people as much as one like this does," Schrum said. "It is not easy sleeping at night knowing that the error has not been fixed and that the people entrusted with the responsibility to correct the error are unable to stay focused on fixing it."

A lawsuit filed on affected employees' behalf by attorney Thomas O'Rourke was thrown out. The judge said no statutory framework exists to address the problem. So until Congress does something, all affected employees can do is wait and hope for a correction.

Pension Offset

Speaking of corrections, benefits consultant Lloyd D. Watnik, who teaches seminars on federal retirement, pointed out that the Government Pension Offset, described in last week's column, affects CSRS retirees' Social Security benefits, not their husbands' or wives' benefits. In fact, the offset doesn't apply to surviving spouses of CSRS retirees, even if they receive survivor benefits under CSRS.

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