Retirement open season guidance trickles out

Half the federal workforce will be eligible to change retirement plans during an open season that kicks off in just over two months. But information that will help employees decide whether to switch is just beginning to trickle out of the Office of Personnel Management.

Federal employees enrolled in the Civil Service Retirement System will have from July 1 until Dec. 31 to switch to the Federal Employees Retirement System. OPM has been slow to issue guidance on the pros and cons of the two systems, because the Clinton administration has been trying to get Congress to repeal the open season. The administration says allowing CSRS employees to switch to FERS will cost the government more than $1 billion through 2003. But with the open season fast approaching, OPM is beginning to offer help to employees.

OPM is referring people who ask about the open season to the FERS Transfer Handbook, a guide originally designed for CSRS enrollees who have returned to the government after a break in service and have the option of moving into FERS.

By May 15, OPM will create a Web page to help employees decide between CSRS and FERS, according to a recent letter to agencies' benefits specialists from Mary Sugar, chief of OPM's retirement and insurance service's agency services division. The Web page will feature a calculator that employees can use to compare CSRS and FERS benefits. For employees without Internet access, OPM is also creating an open season CD-ROM. OPM will also be sending open season guidance packages to agencies' human resources offices.

Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., and Sen. Paul Sarbanes, D-Md., are putting pressure on OPM to get more information out to federal employees. In an April 23 letter to OPM Director Janice Lachance, Mikulski and Sarbanes said they wanted to know the "exact timeline for providing employees with CD-ROM materials, printed brochures, and other support materials."

CSRS enrollees had the option of switching into FERS in 1987, when FERS was created to serve all new federal employees. Last year, Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, inserted the FERS open season provision into the Treasury-General Government appropriations bill. President Clinton used his line-item veto on the provision, only to retract the veto after the National Treasury Employees Union filed a lawsuit against the administration challenging the line-item veto's constitutionality. Then Clinton proposed canceling the open season in his fiscal 1999 budget proposal, but Congress has not taken the proposal up.

OPM officials estimate that one percent of CSRS enrollees will switch to FERS during the open season.

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