Ask The Experts: Retirement

By Reg Jones

Firefighter service requirement

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Q. I am a reserve firefighter. As a full-time firefighter, 25 years of service are required to retire; do I have to spend all 25 years with one department, or can I transfer?

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Firefighter and military time

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Q. I am a federal firefighter in a supervisory forestry technician position. My service date is Feb. 28, 1997, for leave. Before I joined the federal fire service (I have the required three years of primary fire service), I was in the regular Army for approximately four years. Under FERS special LEO/FF retirement, I am eligible to retire with 20 years at 50 or 25 years at any age. Will my military service count toward the computation of my 25 years at any age?

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Disability retirement and turning 62

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Q. I am 57 and was a civilian firefighter for the Navy in FERS with 13 years of service. I was medically retired in 2001 and have been receiving a disability annuity since.

I remember being told or having read that when I turn 62, my disability annuity will revert to a standard retirement, reducing my pension.

A couple of years after I left the federal system, I found part-time work to help add to my income, staying well under the 80 percent requirement, but over the last two to three years, my medical issues have worsened, and I am now unable to work at all.

If my annuity changes from disability retirement to standard retirement, will it affect my medical coverage or the cost of my medical coverage, and is it possible to have my disability considered permanent to avoid the change in retirement designations?

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Mandatory retirement and further federal employment

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Q. I am a federal firefighter under FERS. I have 25 years in position and will reach mandatory retirement age in 4.5 years. I want to stay with the federal program where I work. Is it legal for me to retire from the fire service and move to another government position here at the base where I am employed? If so, where is this in print, or under what regulation? I know in years past this was not allowed unless you came back as a contract employee.

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Step increases during disability

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Q. I am a veteran of the armed forces and a civilian federal firefighter of Hawaii and have about 13 years government time under FERS.

While on duty in 2010, we were in route in the fire engine and an oncoming vehicle lost control and collided with the fire engine, causing substantial injuries to myself and the crew. The majority of the kinetic energy was absorbed by me because the point of impact was where I was seated.

I sustained injuries to my lumbar area in my lower back and injuries to my left limb, for which I’ve undergone a major back surgery, countless doctors’ visits and therapies, etc. I am still recovering from the injuries and presently on modified light duty at four hours a day, five days a week. I was on total disability for about 2 years and noticed that my retirement investment into my Thrift Savings Plan was at a freeze or standstill, where an injured employee could not invest into their TSP while on leave without pay. I also noticed that while on total disability, an injured employee goes into LWOP status, which human resources said affects your within-grade increases to where you are not entitled to move up in step increases.

Is there a new law that helps with retirement benefits for workers hurt on the job? After intensive research, I stumbled across an article by Stephen Barr dated Oct. 10, 2003, informing that President Bush signed legislation that will help make up any shortfall in retirement benefits for federal employees who are disabled or injured while on the job. It mentions the new law will change the way a federal employee’s benefits are calculated during a disability by increasing the pension benefit provided under FERS to cover any shortfall.

Is there also any new law or standard act that helps with entitlements for step increases for workers hurt on the job? Ever since I was injured on the job in 2010, and because of the injuries I sustained I was on total disability in LWOP status not by choice, the opportunity to move up in step increase passed me over twice. As co-workers who were hired the same day as me moved up in step increase, I was denied. Can you advise?

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MRA for firefighter with military buyback

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Q. I am a civilian federal firefighter. I bought back 12 years of active-duty military time into FERS. I will have 25 years total (12 military and 13 civilian) when I am 43 years old. Can I retire at that time since firefighters can retire at 25 years of service at any age, even though only 13 of those years are as a civilian?

A. No, you can’t. You would have to have 25 years of actual firefighter covered service to retire under the special provision.

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Retirement eligibility

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Q. I am 52 years old and have 22 years of federal employment. Can I retire? If so, how soon can I receive monthly payments, and how much would they be reduced by?  How would this affect my Social Security benefits later? Also, how would this affect my medical insurance?

A. Unless you are a special category employee, such as a law enforcement officer or a firefighter, you don’t meet the age and service requirements to retire.

For FERS employees, these are: age 62 with five years of service, 60 with 20, at your minimum retirement age (MRA) with 30, and at your MRA+10, but with a 5 percent-per-year age penalty for every year you are under age 62. Your MRA is 56.

There is an option. Because you have at least 20 years of service, you could resign and apply for a deferred annuity at age 60. After 31 days of free health benefits coverage, you’d be able to continue it for up to 18 months under the temporary continuation of coverage provision of law. However, you’d have to pay the entire premium plus 2 percent.

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Mandatory retirement age

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Q. What is the mandatory retirement age to retire from the federal government? I just turned 52 years old and will have 28 years of federal service in June. How many years can I work to reach the mandatory retirement age? What happens when I reach the mandatory retirement age and I decide not to retire at that time?

A. With the exception of special category employees, such as law enforcement officers, firefighters and air traffic controllers, there is no mandatory retirement age for federal employees.

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Firefighter questions

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Q. I have been a federal firefighter for 12 years. I am looking into going contract as a firefighter for two years. I turned 35 in October. Is there a cutoff age to where I can no longer return to the federal service as a firefighter? I have heard several things and am not sure which is right. I even spoke to my personnel office, which could not give me an answer. I heard you cannot get rehired once you turn 37 and that you can add the years you have been in the federal service to 37 and that would be the cutoff age.

A. There would be no legal bar to your being rehired as a firefighter.

Your years of covered service mean you would have to work for only eight more years to lock in your entitlement to the enhanced retirement benefit.

However, the hiring decision is up to the agency where you are applying for a job.

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FERS firefighter retirement

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Q. I am a federal firefighter and a FERS employee. In 2022, I will have 21 years of creditable service and four years of bought-back active military time and be 48 years old.

1. Will I be able to retire under the provisions of 25 years of service at any age?

2. Will I receive the special category retirement percentages (1.7 x high-3 x creditable service, etc.)?

3. Will I receive the special retirement supplement until 62?

4. Will I not be able to withdraw any Thrift Savings Plan annuities until 62?

A. Reg: 1. No, you won’t be able to retire. Only actual service as a firefighter — not active duty for which you’ve made a deposit — counts toward the 25-year requirement.

2. When you are eligible for retirement and do so, your annuity would be computed using the special category percentage for the first 20 years; the remaining time would be computed using the standard multiplier.

3. When you retire, you would receive the special retirement supplement, regardless of your age, until you reach age 62.

Mike: 4. You will have access to your TSP assets, for withdrawal or to purchase an annuity, as soon as you retire.

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Firefighter pension and Social Security

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Q. I am a firefighter working a 72-hour week. I am thinking of retirement. I have been working  25 years six months and am 50. Is there a limit on what you can make and still draw the Social Security supplement?

A. You’ll be subject to the Social Security earnings limit, but only after you reach your minimum retirement age. For you, that will be age 56.

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Phased retirement

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Q. Who is eligible for phased retirement under the bill that Congress passed that will allow retirement-eligible federal employees to work part time?

A. The law applies to anyone who has met the age and service requirements to retire on an unreduced annuity except for law enforcement officers — including Customs and Border Protection, Capitol Police and Supreme Court officers — firefighters, nuclear materials couriers and air traffic controllers, all of whom face a mandatory retirement age. However, the decision on whether to use the new authority rests solely with the employee’s agency.

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Military credit for firefighter position

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Q. I was in the Marine Corps for 9½ years. I have been working as a public relations specialist with the Veterans Affairs Department for two years. I am applying for an assistant fire chief position with VA based on my experience in my volunteer fire department. If I got this position, what retirement plan would I fall into and would my military or VA time be credited?

A. If you were hired into a firefighter position, one subject to the more generous retirement provision, none of your previous service (military and civilian) would be creditable toward the 20 years needed to retire as a firefighter. It would only be added to those 20 years and computed at the standard rate. Note that none of your military service would be creditable under any circumstance unless you made a deposit to the civilian retirement system.

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Special retirement supplement calculation for firefighter

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Q. I have 27+ years as a federal firefighter (72-hour weekly shifts) and planning retirement Nov. 30 (at age 54). My date of hire was July 1985, which gives me 27 years and four months. For calculating my estimated Social Security supplement, I was told that 1985 would not count because it wasn’t a full year and 2012 would not count because I am not working a full year also. My credible time for federal Social Security supplement = 26 years even though I have 27 1/3.

For example, Social Security estimate $1400 divided by 40 = $35.

$35 x 26= $910 monthly vs. 27 x 35= $945. Is that statement correct?

A. Yes. To see how the special retirement supplement is calculated, go to www.opm.gov/retire/pubs/handbook/C051.pdf.

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Firefighter annuity

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Q. I am a federal firefighter GS-12 and am facing mandatory retirement in 15 months. I have been offered another job on base that is not in the 0081 category but is still a GS-12. I could work past 57 in this position, but will I lose my 1.7 percent annuity for my first 20 years if I accept this position? I have 26 years and am only getting 1 percent per year now.

A. Your 1.7 percent annuity multiplier for 20 years of firefighter service is locked in. No matter what kind of job you take, it won’t have any effect on that.

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Mandatory retirement

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Q. I worked 20 years and two months in a covered firefighter position. I then worked two years in a non-covered position.  I have returned to a secondary covered position.  Do I face mandatory retirement?  Or does my break in service allow me to work past 57?  Where would I find the answer in the federal regulations or is this decided by case history.

A. Yes, you will face mandatory retirement. Go to www.opm.gov/retire/pubs/handbook/C046.pdf and scroll down to Section 46A3.3-2B1, which applies to both CSRS and FERS LEOs and firefighters. Note: That section hasn’t been updated to show that the mandatory retirement age for firefighters is now 57.

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5-year rule

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Q. I am looking into medical retirement after 32 years with the federal fire department. At this time, the Air Force doc has not cleared me to work because of some prescription meds that I take on my off days. I’m going in for thumb surgery for arthritis. I also have lower back pain, and four vertebrae are not in the greatest health. I had Blue Cross/Blue Shield before, and when I got married, I dropped it because my wife’s medical insurance was better than mine. But she lost her job and is now disabled, too, and had to get BC/BS for the family. They say I have to wait five years to carry the coverage into retirement. But if I go out with a medical retirement, do I have to have it for five years in a row?

A. Yes, you have to be enrolled for five consecutive years before you retire.

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Firefighter retirement

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Q. Under my current position description as an Integrated Resource Crewmember, I am required to sustain my arduous level of firefighter qualification. Does this qualify me for secondary firefighter retirement? I have a little over three years as a primary and switched to this position which does not have secondary firefighter retirement?

A. To be eligible for the special retirement benefits for firefighters, you would have to have 20 years of service, starting in a primary position and either staying there or moving directly into a secondary position. Your agency is the one that will determine if your current position qualifies you for that special retirement benefit. If there’s any question, a binding decision can be requested from the Office of Personnel Management.

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Retiring firefighter

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Q. I am a firefighter for the Department of the Army. I was hired at age 41 and will be 61 at the end of my career. I understood that I would be able to retire with 20 years of service, and not be forced to retire at age 57. Could you please help me find the documentation that states this?

A. You’ll find what you are looking for at www.opm.gov/retire/pubs/handbook/C046.pdf. Scroll down to Section 46A3.3-2B2.

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Firefighter losing his job

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Q. I am a federal firefighter with 19 years in. I am shy of three months until I am eligible to retire with my 20 years. I have been told that I am not fit for duty because of some health issues and that I will not be able to retire in August as I had planned. I am being told that I will be let go and that I need to apply for disability. I had 13 years active duty as a firefighter (I already paid back my 13 years). I am also a 10-point veteran. I am trying to figure out what the difference is (if any) if I paid back my military time, and what my disability amount might be. I have tried for a reasonable accommodation and was denied.

A. If you qualify for disability retirement, the fact that you haven’t made a deposit for your active-duty service would have no effect on your disability annuity. As a FERS employee, your annuity for the first 12 months would be 60 percent of your high-3 minus 100 percent of any Social Security disability benefit to which you are entitled. (You’d have to apply for Social Security disability benefits at the same time you file for disability retirement under FERS.) After the first 12 months and until age 62, your annuity would be 40 percent of your high-3 minus any Social Security disability benefit. Therefore, making a deposit for your active-duty service would only affect the amount of your annuity at two points in time: if you were determined to be recovered from your disability, or you reached age 62 and had your annuity recomputed. In either case, those years of active-duty service for which you made a deposit would be included in the computation.

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