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FILE - In this Dec. 5, 2013 file photo, Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., the ranking member of the House Budget Committee, center, takes at a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington. Van Hollen, top Democrat on the House Budget Committee, said he signed off on the $6 billion increase for new federal employees hired beginning in January after Obama assured him he would propose no new retirement benefit cuts in next year’s budget. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
Congress targeting fed workers’ pensions for savings
First Published Dec 16 2013 11:44 am • Last Updated Dec 16 2013 11:45 am

Washington • Top lawmakers have found easy prey in their hunt for savings for Congress’ budget deal: Federal workers’ retirement programs, which are notably generous compared to the norm in private industry.

Most federal civilian employees hired beginning in January will contribute 4.4 percent of their pay to their pension plans under the bipartisan budget agreement. Current government workers’ rates will remain unchanged: Those hired in 2013 will continue paying 3.1 percent, while most on the payroll before then will keep contributing 0.8 percent.

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The workers say they’ve been singled out for a painful hit in the measure, which the House approved last Thursday and the Senate is expected to complete this week.

"These are working class people," said Jackie Simon, policy director for the American Federation for Government Employees, citing Border Patrol agents and nursing assistants at Veterans Administration hospitals. "These are not people who can afford it."

But with federal employees low on voter priority lists and a scant presence in most congressional districts, they proved an irresistible target for lawmakers. And at a time when pensions for private industry workers are edging toward extinction, some said diminished retirement programs are a sign of the times.

"This is not your parents’ retirement you’re looking at," said Olivia Mitchell, a professor and pension expert at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton business school.

While 38 percent of private industry workers received pensions in 1979, just 14 percent did in 2011, the most recent figures from the Employee Benefit Research Institute, which advocates for employee benefit programs.

Besides having pensions, most federal workers can also put money into a 401(k)-like retirement savings program, the Thrift Savings Plan, to which the government makes matching contributions.

That combination is far better than what’s available to most private industry workers. There, only 11 percent of employees had both savings plans and monthly pension payments to look forward to in retirement, according to the research institute’s 2011 figures.

In the federal workers’ savings program, the government matches up to the first 5 percent of employees’ contributions.

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Only about 4 in 10 companies offer retirement savings plans. In the most common, employers match half the money workers contribute up to the first 6 percent of pay, according to an industry survey.

Federal workers and their supporters argue that their pensions tell just part of the story.

The 2.2 million federal civilian employees have had their pay frozen for the past three years. In addition, most were furloughed for one day or longer without pay this year, thanks to the sequester — automatic spending cuts — imposed because of the two parties’ budget standoff.

Federal workers aren’t the only public employees facing growing pension expenses. Such plans remain common for many state and local workers, and 30 states imposed higher pension costs on their employees between 2009 and 2012, according to a survey by the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Such plans — called defined benefits because employers must spend whatever is needed to fully finance them — have been fading in the private sector for decades, as companies shed those expenses. Many firms have shifted to savings plans to which they make a defined contribution, transferring the risk to workers if investments go bad.

Federal workers "have to be careful about crying foul over something for which the other solution would be to eliminate it," said Lynn Dudley, senior policy vice president for the American Benefits Council, which represents big companies that provide retirement benefits.

Most federal employees hired before 1984 are covered by the Civil Service Retirement System. They contribute 7 percent of their earnings for their pensions, but are not covered by Social Security — and don’t pay the 6.2 percent Social Security payroll tax due from other workers.

When Congress strengthened Social Security’s finances in 1983, it put federal workers hired starting in 1984 under a new Federal Employees’ Retirement System. They contribute 0.8 percent of their pay to their pensions, but also must pay Social Security taxes.

In early 2012, that pension contribution was raised to 3.1 percent for workers hired starting last year to pay for an extension of unemployment benefits.

This week’s budget deal gets $6 billion in 10-year savings from federal workers’ increased pension contributions. Overall, the measure would save $85 billion, money used to restore $63 billion in spending cuts over the next two years and slightly reduce federal deficits.

The measure saves another $6 billion by reducing benefits for military personnel who retire early and $6 billion by increasing premiums paid by corporations to the government’s Pension Benefit Guarantee Corp. to guarantee pension benefits.

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