AFSA Newsletter - February 2015

February 2015, Volume 29, Number 1

President Obama’s 2016 Budget Request

Below we have highlighted key areas in the president’s 2016 budget request that are most relevant to members.

Chained-CPI is not included in the president’s budget request. President Obama had included the chained-CPI in his 2013 budget proposal, and this was met with much backlash and protests, including a rally attended by AFSA.

With Republicans in control of both the House and Senate, they may include chained-CPI in their budget proposals since previous budgets proposed by Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) included chained-CPI. But since the president did not include it in his budget, that should send a message to Republicans that he will not support any budget proposal that includes the switch to the chained-CPI.

As a reminder, a switch to the chained-CPI is a cut to your earned benefits.

Also not included in the president’s budget is any proposal that will have a negative impact on the Federal Employees Health Benefit Program. As you might be aware, the Affordable Care Act does not affect your FEHB insurance in any way.

Two other benefits not affected by the president’s budget are retirement contributions and the Social Security Annuity Supplement.

In the past, both have been included in the budget, either to increase retirement contributions for future employees or to eliminate altogether the Social Security Annuity Supplement. Neither of these proposals were included in the 2016 budget request.

So what was included in the president’s budget that has an impact on federal benefits?

First, the president proposed a 1.3 percent pay increase for the federal workforce in 2016. Last year, federal employees only received a 1 percent pay increase, as they did in 2014, after three years of a pay freeze from 2011-2013.

The 1.3 percent increase is significantly less than the proposed legislation by Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) and Senator Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) that calls for a 3.8 percent pay raise for federal employees in 2016.

One way the president might look to recruit and retain the best possible workforce is through his proposal for expanding paid parental leave for federal employees.

The president’s 2016 budget request proposes legislation that would offer federal employees six weeks of paid administrative leave for the birth, adoption or foster placement of a child. In addition, the proposal would make explicit the ability for mothers and fathers to use sick days to take care of a new child.

This proposal is similar to legislation proposed by Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) and supported by AFSA—the Federal Employee Paid Parental Leave Act, which was introduced in January.

We will continue to monitor the budget process and update our members on the next steps and their impact on federal benefits.

Medicare Doc Fix

Once again Congress has proposed legislation to permanently replace Medicare’s Sustainable Growth Rate formula to prevent steep cuts in physician payments that will result in more doctors refusing to treat Medicare patients.

In the past, Congress has made temporary fixes by passing legislation delaying the scheduled reductions to Medicare physician payments of more than 20 percent. Today, however, there is a strong desire by lawmakers to finally pass a permanent replacement to the SGR.

The most recent bipartisan legislative proposal would cost $174.5 billion between fiscal years 2015 and 2025, according to a report from the Congressional Budget Office. That amount is almost $30 billion more than the 10-year estimate made by the CBO last November.

The current temporary fix is set to expire on March 31, and passage of a permanent replacement before then is unlikely.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) doesn’t think there will even be a hearing on the issue until April and says that the Senate won’t pass a bill that is not paid for.

This means there will have to be another temporary fix while lawmakers push to finally pass a permanent replacement in 2015.

Questions to Ask Your Financial Adviser

If you are considering using a financial adviser, or if you have one but are not entirely happy with their service, the Securities and Exchange Commission is a great place to go for helpful information (www.sec.gov).

The SEC has a useful brochure titled “Questions You Should Ask About Your Investments...and What To Do If You Run Into Problems.”

Below is a list of some of those questions. (To view the entire list, visit www.sec.gov/investor/pubs/askquestions.htm.)

  • Are you registered with our state securities regulator?
  • Have you ever been disciplined by the SEC, a state regulator, or other organizations?
  • How long has your firm been in business?
  • How many arbitration awards have been filed against your firm?
  • How long have you been in the business?
  • What other firms have you been registered with? What is the status of those firms today?
  • Have you personally been involved in any arbitration cases? What happened?
  • What is your investment philosophy?
  • Describe your typical client. Can you provide me with some names and phone numbers of your long-term clients?
  • How do you get paid? By commission? Amount of assets you manage? Another method?
  • Do I have a choice how I pay you?
  • Do you make more money if I buy this investment rather than another? If you weren’t making extra money, would your recommendation be the same?
  • How much am I paying in commission or fees?

This list is only a small sample of the guidance available. We strongly recommend you visit the SEC website and take advantage of their information and assistance.

Manage Your Annuity on Annuitant Express

You can manage your annuity at “Annuitant Express” at www.employeeexpress.gov, the same website you used while on active duty. Here you can view your annuity records and process changes at any time.

When you retire, the Office of Personnel Management will mail or email you a login ID and password. Go to www.employeeexpress.gov and login with the ID and password provided; you can change the ID and password if desired NOTE: When prompted to identify your agency, do not enter “Department of State” or any other agency. All annuitants must enter “Foreign Services Annuitants.” For questions on securing a login ID or password, email EEXHelp@opm.gov or call (888) 353-9450.

Forget your login ID or password? In the past, forgetting your login ID or password was a nightmare, particularly for annuitants living overseas. Previously, the only way to get a temporary password or login ID was by mail. Now OPM can email you a temporary login ID or password, but the email address you provide must match the one on record with the Retirement Accounts Division. If you are not sure whether your email address matches the one on record, email PayHelp@state.gov or fax (800) 521-2553 with your first and last name, the last four numbers of your social security number and the email address you would like to have on file. You can also call (800) 521-2553 to confirm the email address on file, but you can only change the email address on file in writing.

Moving? New Bank Account? Employee Express is the quickest, easiest way to change your mailing address, modify your direct deposit account, home address and allotments or change your federal and state tax withholding. When moving from one state to another, you must submit the change in writing via email at PayHelp@state.gov or fax (843) 308-5494.

1099-R? At tax time, the quickest way to get your 1099-R is by printing it off of Employee Express. (1099-Rs are normally mailed to retirees; but if you need a hard copy, email PayHelp@state.gov or call (800) 521-2553.)

Annuitant Express is the easiest way to view your monthly Annuity Statements (annuitants will only receive a mailed copy of their statement if a change was processed) and to modify up to three financial allotments (this does not include charity, thrift savings, garnishments or union/organizational dues).

Unlike in Employee Express, annuitants can’t manage their health benefits, TSP, FEGLI or CFC contributions through Annuitant Express. To modify health benefits or FEGLI, email HRSC@state.gov or call (866) 300-7419. To modify your thrift savings plan, go directly to www.tsp.gov and click on “Contact TSP.” Combined Federal Campaign contributions cannot be deducted automatically from annuities.

WAE Employment. Reemployed annuitants will continue to have access to both their Annuity Statements and their Earning & Leave Statements at www.employeeexpress.gov. If an annuitant is not reemployed, the annuitant will only have access to their employee information for 18 months. WAEs may request that a password for Employee Express be sent by email if they have an email address ending in “.gov.” Thus, WAE annuitants will have two separate accounts to access annuity information and active (WAE) salary information at the same time.

Five Things You Can Change in Retirement

Government Executive recently ran an article about the five things a federal retiree can change in retirement. We decided to recreate the article but feature the five things a Foreign Service retiree can change after leaving the Service.

Here is a list of the top five:

1. Your Address

Retirees need to remember to notify the Human Resource Service Center, the Thrift Savings Plan, the Social Security Administration, personal health care providers and AFSA of any change in address.

It’s important to update your address to make sure you’re notified of any change in your benefits, as well as any upcoming deadlines.

2. Your Insurance

Health. Retirees are eligible to participate in the annual Federal Employees Health Benefits Program open season. Retirees can also make changes when they turn 65 during a personal open season. This allows you to change your health plan to something that might work better with Medicare. You can also enroll in or change your Federal Employees Dental and Vision insurance coverage in retirement.

Life. You can’t increase your Federal Employee Group Life Insurance in retirement, but a retiree can cancel or reduce their coverage at any time by completing Form SF-2818 and returning it to the Human Resources Service Center.

Once the form is complete, the retiree can return it to HRSC via fax at (843) 202-3807, or scan and email it to HRSC@state.gov. HRSC will begin processing the FEGLI change with the copy; however, they will still need the original form to complete the process. Retirees can mail their original form to:

     Human Resources Service Center
     U. S. Department of State
     1999 Dyess Ave., Bldg. E
     Charleston, SC 29405

Long-Term Care. If you did not enroll in a long-term care insurance plan while you were employed, you may still be eligible for coverage after you retire under the Federal Long Term Care Insurance Program. Your spouse may be able to enroll in a plan, as well.

3. Your Tax Withholding

Retirees may choose to have taxes withheld from their federal retirement annuity, Social Security benefits and monthly payments from the TSP. You can contact PayHelp@state.gov to adjust your federal and state tax withholding for your pension.

4. Your Marital Status

If you marry, divorce, or become widowed as a retiree, you will need to notify HRSC, your health insurance company, life insurance company, TSP and Social Security. There will be a limited window in which you can add a new spouse to certain coverages, and it’s important to notify necessary parties immediately at the time of divorce or death of a spouse.

5. Your TSP Withdrawal Options and Account Allocations

Once you have separated from service, you are no longer eligible to make contributions to your TSP account or borrow from it; however, TSP offers several options for withdrawing the money from your account, and you can change the funds to which to allocate your account.

AFSA Needs Domestic Diplomats!

In this issue’s “Retiree Spotlight,” Fredericka Schmadel opines that once you get beyond the beltway into mainstream America, nobody really understands the Foreign Service. Engaging Americans on the importance of diplomacy and how it is done is key to building our Foreign Service legacy. Ms. Schmadel suggests we “tap retired members to speak to groups all over the country.”

Well, that’s exactly what AFSA’s Speakers Bureau empowers you to do: become a domestic ambassador for the Foreign Service. To volunteer, sign up at www.afsa.org/speakers. To learn more about the program, click on the link “Speakers Bureau FAQs”

What is the AFSA Speaker’s Bureau experience like? Take it from retired FSO Molly Williamson:

“I have been an AFSA speaker for several years. The opportunity to speak all over the country has been great fun, a bit of the Foreign Service adventure and a chance to meet and engage with educated, curious folks interested in current issues. It has been especially rewarding to hear people excited about diplomacy and foreign policy leadership. There is a growing demand for speakers who are knowledgeable about international issues. It would be a pity if we were not able to encourage public interest and help build a constituency for the Foreign Service. And when they say ‘You really helped me understand…’ you feel the gratification of having contributed.”

But AFSA isn’t just looking for speakers. AFSA is also looking for venues to engage the public. You can help by introducing organizations you know and work with, including educational institutions, civic and religious groups, clubs, retiree organizations and more. You might even pitch an organization in which you are a member to give you an opportunity to speak on some aspect of the Foreign Service.

Whether you have specific areas of expertise you would like to share or simply want to introduce the basics of working inside a U.S. embassy, AFSA will send you an information packet to get you started. Even if you don’t wish to be a speaker yourself, let AFSA know of groups interested in having an AFSA speaker by emailing retiree@afsa.org; include “Speakers Bureau Opportunity” in the subject line.

AFSA domestic diplomats can play a critical role in educating Americans on the importance of diplomacy and how it is done, both as speakers and as scouts identifying venues.

Sign up today!

Retiree Spotlight: Interview with Fredericka Schmadel

Born and raised in Indiana, Fredericka earned her B.A. and M.A. with honors from Indiana University, Bloomington. She taught German language and culture for 11 years in high schools and universities. She was a PhD candidate in medieval literature at Washington University (St. Louis) when she joined the Foreign Service. Fredericka served in Maracaibo, Reykjavík, Tijuana, Krakow, Osaka, Caracas and Washington, D.C. (Human Smuggling and Trafficking Center), in addition to an assignment at FSI teaching the consular course. Following retirement, she returned to Indiana University to earn a PhD in cultural anthropology/folklore. Her passions are her two grandchildren and her dogs.

AFSA: What attracted you to the Foreign Service?

FS: I was happy as a medievalist, writing a dissertation and teaching full time; some of my poems had been published, but in high school I’d had a summer homestay in Germany and, later a Fulbright year there. I saw an ad in Ms. magazine announcing the Foreign Service exam and was attracted by the prestige of the work, the intellectual challenge and cultural exchange through living, not just travelling, overseas. I signed up for the test and went through the stages, wondering at each stage how many people who really knew about international relations were ahead of me.

AFSA: Were your expectations realized?

FS: I loved it. People were wonderful. I could have been intimidated in such a huge State Department bureaucracy, but as a young university faculty member, I had found my professional association very helpful. So as soon as I heard about AFSA, I joined up, confident AFSA would have my back. In the end nothing scared me. I ventured into precarious territory, such as long-term language training— not the fabled “career killer” after all. Fluent in German, I took on Japanese and Polish, in addition to Spanish; I greatly enjoyed that training and those assignments.

I saw from the periphery how AFSA could address problems at high levels and encourage dissent. No organization can thrive if it stifles creativity and initiative. Perhaps my greatest delight was the Sherlock Holmes–type sleuthing on the visa line. As a first-tour officer, I identified a Palestinian airplane hijacker who had bribed an official to secure an authentic Venezuelan passport. I found out much later that he was the first such terrorist to be extradited to the United States, and he is, as far as I know, still in prison here. I dream of rolling out those sleuthing skills again.

I also relished creating and organizing crisis management workshops at posts, for which I received the Superior Honor Award. My son surpassed me in one FS arena: I never met a Secretary of State in person, but my son met Secretary Shultz in Iceland for a NATO Ministerial (I was control officer at the airport).

AFSA: What was your adjustment to retirement like?

FS: I have nothing but praise for the Job Search Program the department provides. A Civil Service participant suggested I look into court mediating. I am now a mediator affiliated with the Supreme Court of Indiana. The training was fascinating. Although I haven’t mediated for a fee, the experience has been very useful to me as a teacher. I returned to university in 2008 and received my doctorate this year, focusing on indigenous peoples in America and Western cultures. The job hunt was, and remains, extremely competitive. I located a summer school teaching job and in early November made a presentation to the annual meeting of the American Folklore Society, where a publisher also talked to me about my dissertation. It’s about American children’s summer camp and how it ennobles people’s lives. Formal recognition has not been wanting; a book review I wrote made it into a footnote on Wikipedia—about an early modern alchemist—and I received a national prize for research regarding myth and worldview.

AFSA: How can AFSA improve services to retirees?

FS: In my normal round of activities there is no one who can understand my Foreign Service stories, jokes or jargon. Sometimes I wonder if that interlude in my life ever really existed. A speakers’ board could tap retired members to speak to groups all over the country, perhaps in twos and threes so as to engage their audiences better. Scholarly articles, op-eds or other collaboration could result from a more connected AFSA online community. As a teacher, I rely on AFSA’s “Daily Media Digest” for my classes and to keep myself informed. AFSA makes good choices that I appreciate and rely on. I have also used AFSA’s Inside a U.S. Embassy for courses I have designed and taught in international studies.

AFSA: What are your future plans?

FS: I don’t want to see my Foreign Service career as just one magical interlude, sort of a dream, which has now ended. I’m working to create an ethnographic study of the FSNs, those often-invisible members of our community, angels who save us time and again from culture clashes and missteps. As FSNs are supplanted by non-native LESs, I fear we will lose the invaluable cultural sensitivity and cultural finesse they provide. Several studies have emerged, but none of them focus on FSNs in their own words and tell the anecdotes they live by. My study will do that.

Foreign Affairs Day, May 1

Foreign Service retirees from all U.S. foreign affairs agencies are welcome to attend the State Department’s annual homecoming event, Foreign Affairs Day. In addition to remarks by senior State Department officials, Foreign Affairs Day also includes the AFSA Memorial Ceremony honoring Foreign Service personnel who have died while serving abroad under circumstances distinctive to the Foreign Service. There will also be two sessions of off-the-record seminars on foreign policy issues and a luncheon. Reservations for the luncheon ($50 per person) will be accepted on a first-come, first-served basis. Payment by personal check must accompany reservation. In recent years the luncheon has sold out very quickly.

Foreign Affairs Day invitations will be mailed in early March. Retirees who haven’t attended Foreign Affairs Day recently may request an invitation by emailing the following information to foreignaffairsday@state.gov: last name, first name, date of birth, retirement date, whether Civil Service or Foreign Service, U.S. foreign affairs agency from which retired, mailing address, phone number and email address.

Contributions to AFSA Award

The AFSA Achievement and Contributions to the Association Award recognizes an active-duty or retired AFSA member of any of the foreign affairs agencies represented by AFSA who has made a significant (non-monetary) contribution to the association in its role either as a professional association of practitioners of diplomacy or as a labor union representing Foreign Service members. Award recipients will be asked to attend AFSA’s Annual Awards Ceremony in the Benjamin Franklin Diplomatic Reception Room at the State Department on June 9, 2015, to be recognized for their achievements.

Each award comes with a monetary prize, and AFSA will publicize the achievement in the recipient’s hometown and alumni media outlets.

The deadline for the Contributions Award is March 31, 2015. Please visit www.afsa.org/performance for more information and to fill out a nomination form.

AFSA Scholarships

Dependents of Foreign Service employees (active duty or retired) who are AFSA members can apply for financial aid scholarships to put toward their undergraduate college costs.

Awards of $3,000 to $5,000 are available based on the family's financial situation. The deadline to apply is March 6, 2015.

Please visit www.afsa.org/scholar for complete details on this member benefit or contact Lori Dec at (202) 944-5504 or scholar@afsa.org.

As a reminder, AFSA’s scholarship program is completely funded by donations, not by members’ dues.

If you have any questions or issues, please email us at member@afsa.org

Please direct any questions that you may have to our in-house expert on retirement issues:

Todd Thurwachter
Retiree Counselor
(202) 994-5509

thurwachter@afsa.org