Federal workers anticipate buyout boon 60,000 to 100,000 may take offer if plan passes

November 08, 1993|By Nelson Schwartz | Nelson Schwartz,Washington BureauContributing Writer

WASHINGTON -- For almost three decades, Martin Kurland has dreamed of leaving his job at the Social Security Administration to pursue a career as a clown.

Next year, thanks to a lucrative buyout for federal workers proposed by the Clinton administration, the 57-year-old social insurance specialist may get his chance.

Congress is now putting the finishing touches on legislation that would provide departing federal workers with up to $25,000 in severance pay. Though final details of the buyout are still being worked out, some federal employees are already plotting their escape from the civil service.

"It's something I really want to do," says Mr. Kurland, who is anxiously waiting to see if he will be eligible. "Now, I might be able to try my wings at it, but know there is a safety net."

Theoretically, every federal employee with at least 12 months of service would be eligible for next year's buyout, which is part of the Clinton administration's effort to slash the government work force by 252,000 over the next five years. Officials at the Office of Personnel Management estimate that between 60,000 and 100,000 of the nation's 2.1 million federal workers would take the offer.

But individual agencies would be able to deny the offer to certain departments or pay grades -- a likely scenario at Social Security.

The buyout program might be more liberal at NASA, which employs nearly 4,000 people at the Goddard Space Flight Center at Greenbelt. The space agency hopes to cut its work force of 24,000 by just over ten percent.

The proposed law, which is still being drafted on Capitol Hill, calls for federal employees to receive the equivalent of one week's pay for each of their first ten years and two weeks' pay for each additional year or $25,000, whichever is less. One caveat: For each year under age 55, a worker's pension benefits would shrink by two percent.

That cash could enable Mr. Kurland to give up his desk-bound existence and begin working as a children's entertainer and clown full-time, instead of the occasional weekend and evening, as he does now.

In recent months, Mr. Kurland, a Pikesville resident, has been mulling over the possible proposal, crunching the numbers and talking it over with his wife and co-workers.

Like Mr. Kurland, thousands of other civil servants in Maryland and across the country are thinking hard about their futures. Already, the buyout has become a daily topic of discussion around the water coolers and cafeterias at Social Security's huge Woodlawn headquarters.

The usual retirement rate of 6 percent a year has dropped by half this year as Social Security's 14,000 Baltimore workers watch what Washington does, according to John Gage, president of Local 1923 of the American Federation of Government Employees, which represents roughly 20,000 workers at Social Security and the nearby Health Care Financing Administration.

"I've had more calls about this than anything else in the last few years," says Alvin Levy, executive vice president of Local 1923.

The implications of the buyout are especially serious for Social Security. Its work force is older than that of many agencies. And, according to Mr. Levy, 40 percent of its workers will be eligible for retirement over the next five years.

Strains left by layoffs

In addition, the agency's employees are already operating under the strains left behind by huge layoffs during the 1980s. Another exodus could further clog an already overburdened system, managers worry.

It is likely that at least some workers who might want to participate won't be offered the deal to prevent certain departments from getting hit too hard.

"It's real hard for me to sort this out because, on the one hand, we would be offering buyouts at a time when we so desperately need people, and obviously the people who would choose buyouts would be those who are the most senior and most experienced," says Social Security's new commissioner, Shirley Sears Chater. "So, it presents a difficulty to the agency at a particularly critical time."

Social Security officials say they are far from making any decisions about eligibility. But that hasn't stopped Pam Thomas, a program analyst, from fantasizing about the buyout. It might enable Mrs. Thomas and her husband, Dan, a systems analyst at the agency, to retire early and move to California.

"We talk about it a lot," says Mrs. Thomas, 52, who lives in Charles Village. "I'd read and write and sculpt and paint and enjoy sleeping in."

Some of the agency's younger staff members are thinking about their plans as well, saying they might consider a move to the private sector if the severance package is lucrative enough. Others are reluctant to give up secure jobs and venture into a tough job market.

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