Uncle Sam's workers take buyouts and run

August 12, 1994|By Verne Kopytoff | Verne Kopytoff,Contributing Writer

Washington -- For Susan Jackson, 31, of Greenbelt, saying goodbye to the federal government in April, with the help of a buyout, meant saying hello to the joys of self-employment.

Though Ms. Jackson now works longer hours as a financial adviser than she did as a visual-information specialist for the U.S. Information Agency in Washington, she is much happier. "I care more about something that belongs to me," she says. "I don't miss my old job at all."

Ms. Jackson left behind 11 years of civil service to join forces with a co-worker, Candace Young, 30, of Landover, as partners in a new investment advisory franchise. They provide investment advice and manage savings and retirement accounts for individuals. "I bought into the dream of a title, but no income," says Ms. Young, a 13-year veteran of the government. "The buyouts were a blessing in disguise."

The two women are among thousands of federal workers who cleared their desks, collected up to $25,000 and went their own way to another job, further schooling or retirement. The buyouts are part of the federal government's effort to shrink the 2.1 million-member federal work force by nearly 12 percent over five years.

Under the program, a federal worker who has completed 12 months of service can take severance pay or a lump sum of $25,000 -- whichever is less -- upon leaving government.

Having moved on to other careers while they are young, Ms. Jackson and Ms. Young are not necessarily typical of the federal buyout recipients. So far, most of the recipients have been people who are already near the age of retirement.

"The evidence has shown that the buyout offers convinced mainly older employees who were already contemplating retirement to go out when they did," says Mike Orenstein, a spokesman for the Office of Personnel Management. "There have been some who went back to school or wanted to find another job, but that hasn't been the rule."

Among the retirees, many have moved to where the cost of living is cheaper. Others are spending more time with their families. But among the younger people who have seized the moment, such as Ms. Jackson and Ms. Young, new careers have been the rule. One returned to school to become a mortician. Another became a free-lance manicurist.

Both Ms. Jackson and Ms. Young say they had been considering leaving their positions at the Information Agency even before the buyout plan was announced. Once their part- time financial advising work began to earn them more money than their full-time work, the two friends knew it was time to leave.

Ms. Jackson and Ms. Young left their jobs with a host of complaints about their government posts, citing a "glass ceiling" for women, poor racial relations and employee in-fighting for promotions.

For Ms. Young, all that is behind her, and the liberty of her new life is invigorating. "It feels great to be my own boss," she says. "I already had the boss mentality."

The buyout plan continues as more federal agencies shave workers from their rolls to help reach the Clinton administration's goal of 252,000 fewer federal employees within five years.

As of mid-June, the most recent point for which figures are available, 13,305 workers had taken the buyout, out of an estimated 60,000 to 100,000 slots that will eventually be made available, according to the Office of Personnel Management. An upturn in buyout activity is expected after October, once a new fiscal year begins.

Many agencies selected the positions eligible for the buyouts, with a minimum of 12 months' experience being the rule for all agencies. The program was set up, in most cases, so that those with the most years of service were eligible and had the most incentive to leave.

With Maryland's high concentration of federal workers and agencies, the state has been especially buyout-active. Many agencies in the state have offered or will be offering buyouts.

The Health Care Financing Administration in Woodlawn recently completed its buyout period, with 112 employees accepted from the center's 3,920 employees. The Census Bureau in Suitland accepted 175 buyouts from its 4,500 employees, while the Social Security Administration in Woodlawn is expecting to start its buyouts after October. The Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Baltimore had four employees who took the buyout.

Mainly midlevel managers and higher were targeted, such as Robert Jacobs, 62, of District Heights, who took a buyout in April. He misses the camaraderie of the workplace after 39 years of civil service but says he has made the transition to retired life without missing a beat.

"I haven't had the time to be bored," Mr. Jacobs says. "I sure don't miss the traffic and getting up early."

He and his wife plan a leisurely boat trip up the Canadian coast to Alaska, an excursion he would not have been able to take while working.

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