Federal workers take buyout money and run

April 02, 1994|By Victoria White | Victoria White,Contributing Writer

WASHINGTON -- Bob Carbonneau packed his things and said a sudden goodbye Thursday to his job at the federal Office of Personnel Management. Promised a $25,000 check by the government, he took the money and ran.

"The timing was right," said Mr. Carbonneau, the 46-year-old director of diversity at OPM. He is among thousands of federal workers being offered buyouts as part of an effort to pare the federal work force by nearly 12 percent over five years.

"My kids are a little older, 21 and 24," Mr. Carbonneau said. "So it's an opportunity to test the waters in the private sector."

Emma Agee of Wheaton has worked for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration since 1965. A program analyst, she is among about 1,000 NASA employees who applied for the buyouts this week. She won't know for a few weeks if her application is one of the 825 that NASA will accept. But, in the meantime, she's dreaming of the traveling and reading she'll do if it is.

"Maybe I'll have some more time to go see my son in Connecticut, to get up there and hear him preach," said Mrs. Agee, the mother of a Methodist minister.

Happy stories like theirs are bound to become more common in coming months as federal employers thin the ranks of middle and upper management. The Clinton administration wants to cut 252,000 positions within five years. To achieve that goal without widespread layoffs, some federal departments over the next year will offer selected categories of workers up to $25,000 each to voluntarily leave their government jobs.

President Clinton on Wednesday signed the bill, which gives departments wide latitude to determine when and how to carry out the buyout process so long as it is done within a year. Some departments are offering the buyouts now. Others are still devising plans.

Throughout the federal work force, between 60,000 and 100,000 employees are expected to leave within a year with the lump-sum buyout payments in hand, said Janice Lachance, a spokeswoman for OPM. The buyouts will be taken nationwide, but Washington-based employees are expected to take a sizable share because so many middle- and upper-management federal employees work in the area. With 300,000 Maryland residents in federal employment, many state residents are expected to take the buyouts.

Some departments, such as the Department of Health and Human Services, expect to offer few if any buyouts this year. That means there will be little action at the Woodlawn-based Social Security Administration and the Health Care Financing Administration, which are part of HHS.

But in other corners of the federal government, the buyouts are likely to reshape the work force and do so quickly. At OPM, for example, 77 workers have taken the buyouts, and the buyout program is over. Eligible employees there were given a window of just five days to request a buyout. Everyone at OPM who requested a buyout got one.

The agency did not say whether it had expected more or fewer employees to take the buyouts. But in a statement yesterday, OPM Director James B. King said he was pleased with the results.

Mr. Carbonneau, a former Rockville resident who earned more than $70,000 a year at OPM, said it was difficult to make such a critical decision about his future so quickly. "I haven't slept in three nights," he said. But once he came to a decision, it had to be done immediately.

For budget reasons, time is of the essence. With the fiscal year half over, departments won't save much money on salaries by shedding positions this year. To afford the $25,000 buyout payments in their current budgets, departments must offer them as soon as possible.

At NASA, employees have two more weeks to apply for a buyout. It appears likely, then, that the number of buyout applicants will grow beyond the 1,000 already signed up. "A lot of people are surprised we have this high of a number this early," said Joan Peterson, head of the agency's personnel policy.

Because they will have many more people seeking buyouts than the 825 they are able to give, NASA officials will have to sift through the applications after the April 15 deadline to see who fits their priorities. Those who have 25 years of service or who are 50 years old with 20 years of service have the first shot. After that, supervisors and managers in the higher-pay categories will be considered.

If there is a tie, said Ms. Peterson, the employees who have worked for NASA the longest will be given the buyouts.

Madelon Brown of Silver Spring said, with a laugh, that she has been thinking of leaving her job at NASA "since the first day I started working" 13 years ago. If her buyout application is approved, the 62-year-old procurement analyst wants to join an arts and crafts class, take up water aerobics and travel to Egypt, South America, Switzerland or the Far East.

"The world is out there," she said. "There are just too many things I want to do with my life."

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