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Advice on how to prepare for life after government.

The Mystery of the Vanishing Service Credit

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Regular readers of this column know that I’m a big proponent of making sure you keep your own copies of important personnel records, just in case you need them. This is particularly true at a time when the federal retirement system is switching over to electronic record-keeping, which, while more efficient, provides a new opportunity for errors to creep into the process.

A reader recently told me his story of how the electronic system almost cost him credit for several months of federal service, and how keeping his own files helped him correct the problem.

I’ll let him tell the story:

You suggest that employees, about five years from retirement, meet with HR to have them run their numbers and check out their paperwork to make sure that everything is in order.  About five years ago (actually seven, due to the financial downturn) I had HR run my numbers and check everything out. Everything was about as I expected.

The financial downturn took place and I decided to hold off [on retirement]. This past March, I decided that I was a year away from retirement and [remembered your suggestion to] meet with HR to start the process. I met with HR and asked them again to run my numbers. Much to my surprise, HR came back and told me that my service computation date had changed. It moved from Dec. 9, 1975, to March 29, 1976. Somehow I had lost four months, meaning I either had to work an additional four months, or plan to lose the four months worth of credit toward my retirement.

The HR person was very nice. She said that she couldn’t figure out what happened and why my date changed. She said she knew the person who had run my numbers before (since retired) and she never made a mistake like this. She said that another person in HR was running the numbers also and she had requested that OPM check the numbers as well. Still, my service comp date stayed at March 29, 1976.

When I started my federal career, I started, like many people, as a student. Early in my career I worked [intermittently, known as “when actually employed” status], part time and full time as I moved back and forth between school and work. It wasn’t until several years into my career that I finally moved into a permanent full time job as I wrapped up my education.  Fortunately for me, a very wise person told me very early in my career to “hold on to every SF-50 form that you ever receive from personnel.” Thankfully, I had done just that.  I went back and looked at every SF-50 I ever received and found that my service computation date first appeared on an SF-50 dated July 1976.

In the time since I had my numbers run seven years ago, HR has implemented the [Electronic Official Personnel Folder] system. I went back and compared every single piece of paper in my paper file to the electronic eOPF file. It turns out that in June 1976 I was issued an SF-50 for “intermittent employment totaled 082 days in a pay status.” When this piece of paper was scanned into the eOPF system, the scan was not very clear, and HR and OPM were only giving me two days credit instead of the 82 days of credit that I earned. In their defense, the number did look a little like 002, but if you looked really close, you could see that the middle zero didn’t look exactly like the digit next to it.

Thank goodness I had the original paper copy and have since gotten my service computation date restored to Dec 9, 1975. Now four months out of a 38-year career doesn’t make that much difference, but I’m glad I didn’t wait until just before the stress of preparing for retirement to find out about this mistake.

This letter is a great example of an employee who took responsibility in a variety of ways to make sure his retirement benefit estimate accurately represented the career that he worked and that he will receive credit for all of the service that he’s performed.

Tammy Flanagan has spent 30 years helping federal employees take charge of their retirement by understanding their benefits. She runs her own consulting business at www.tammyflanagan.com and provides individual counseling as well as online training for the National Active and Retired Federal Employees Association, Plan Your Federal Retirement as well as the Federal Long Term Care insurance Program. She also serves as the senior benefits director for the National Institute of Transition Planning Inc., which conducts federal retirement planning workshops and seminars.

For more retirement planning help, tune in to "For Your Benefit," presented by the National Institute of Transition Planning Inc. live on Federal News Radio on Mondays at 10 a.m. ET on WFED AM 1500 in the Washington-metro area. Archived shows are available on NITPInc.com.

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