The U.S. Senate approved a concept this week that, if applied to the U.S. Postal Service, could be a big help both to the beleaguered agency and to many of its employees.
As written, the “phased retirement” amendment may not even apply to USPS and would not be particularly relevant to the financially strapped independent agency. But the concept of enabling retirement-eligible employees to switch to part-time status without messing up their benefits could offer the Postal Service a relatively employee-friendly method of reducing costs.
The Senate’s amendment to a major transportation bill (Why transportation? Don’t ask.) fleshes out a concept introduced in the Office of Personnel Management’s FY 2013 budget proposal – “to help ensure continuity of operations and facilitate knowledge management by allowing valued employees to transition into retirement.” OPM proposed that employees be able “to reduce their work schedules at the end of their careers and receive income from a combination of reduced salary and a partial retirement annuity.”
The Senate bill would enable a retirement-eligible employee to move into an open part-time position. Such “phased retirees” would work a fixed number of hours per week and would have to spend at least 20% of their time mentoring others.
The Senate’s approach would help the Postal Service counter the “brain drain” that has plagued its administrative ranks and often robbed it of key managers and experts. But omitting the mentoring requirement would make phased retirement even more valuable to USPS, enabling it to expand the pool of experienced part-time craft employees while reducing the number of full-timers.
Relying more on part-time labor is a major part of the Postal Service's plan to create a more flexible and efficient workforce.
Without the fixed-hours requirement, the concept could also help the Postal Service manage the usual seasonal fluctuations in mail volume more efficiently if, for example, phased retirees stepped up their hours during the busy holiday season.
A boon for older employees
Managed properly, phased retirement could also be a boon for USPS employees, whose median age is 50 and about half of whom are eligible for retirement. Many older employees in physically strenuous jobs would welcome the opportunity to work shorter hours without having to quit entirely.
But opportunities to switch to other assignments within USPS are rare. Changing employers would mean a big pay cut for workers whose knowledge and skills are not easily transferable to other organizations. And even retiring from the Postal Service can be an unattractive prospect.
As I wrote last year, “USPS employees have good reason to fear retirement, including inaccurate pension estimates, inconsistent answers to retirement-related questions, and months-long waits to receive full benefits after retirement.”
Lowering such barriers to retirement should be a key part of any plan to fix the Postal Service.