AFSA Newsletter - June 2015

June 2015, Volume 29, Number 3

FS Know-How: Focus on Retirement Planning

For some, planning for retirement is put off until the actual time comes. However, the sooner you start planning, the greater are your chances of enjoying a comfortable retirement.

Being prepared for retirement requires keeping complete and accurate payroll, personnel and service computation date records, and obtaining service credit for prior federal service. It also means ensuring that potential family changes—such as death, divorce or remarriage—are reflected in a timely way in health coverage and survivor benefits.

The State Department’s Retirement Network, rnet.state.gov, provides considerable information for employees and their spouses. The website has a retirement planning guide, comprehensive retirement information, retirement forms and a very useful Q&A forum under “AskRNet.”

The Foreign Service Institute’s Transition Center offers a mid-career retirement planning course for employees 10-15 years away from retirement, in addition to the retirement planning seminar for employees within 5 years of retirement and the Job Search Program for employees at retirement. AFSA recommends everyone take advantage of these programs throughout their careers.

Choosing the best date to retire can make a difference in the annuity level an employee will receive. At least one year before retirement, employees should ask the Retirement Office to make annuity calculations for them based on three different dates.

Employees should also consult their retirement counselors in HR/RET about specific issues affecting their retirement and time limits for making changes (particularly in cases of divorce and remarriage) well before retirement.

It is also useful to talk to a financial adviser about financial planning and tax considerations involved with lump-sum payments, state taxation of federal annuities, Thrift Savings Plan (TSP) funds and Social Security benefits.

While the State Department does provide resources and counseling, it does not protect employees or retirees from the consequences of errors made by the department that result in overpayments. AFSA will help educate members on what to do when an overpayment occurs, but it is beneficial for employees to be vigilant and try their best to understand the obscure and complicated legal aspects of the Foreign Service Pension System and Social Security Annuity Supplement.

AFSA provides a wealth of retirement resources and assistance for its members. We have two dedicated retiree counselors who provide individual counseling and assistance. Last year they advised more than 300 members on issues ranging from the Federal Employees Health Benefit Program and Medicare to Social Security and pensions.

AFSA also works to keep its members informed about potential threats to federal retirement benefits. With the large federal debt, Congress will continue to look for ways to cut the deficit and federal employee benefits will continue to be at risk. Changes could affect both future and current federal employees and retirees.

Keeping your AFSA membership during retirement can go a long way in supporting our efforts to protect Foreign Service retirement benefits from potential cuts.

It is important to plan ahead and become well informed about your retirement future. AFSA will do its best to provide you with the guidance and assistance you need to understand and deal with your particular retirement issues, and we will keep a watchful eye on Capitol Hill. But, the more attention you pay to your own needs in advance of retirement, the easier it will be for you.

2016 COLA Update

The April Consumer Price Index for Urban Wage Earners and Clerical Workers is 231.520, a one-month increase of 0.20 percent. Since last year’s cost-of-living adjustment was calculated in the third quarter of 2014, the CPI-W has decreased 1.16 percent.

Should the third-quarter average for 2015 remain below the 2014 third-quarter average of 234.242, retirees will not receive a COLA for 2016.

Under current law, COLAs for federal retirement annuities, as well as for Social Security payments, are determined in reference to the CPI-W, which is calculated by economists and statisticians at the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The CPI-W is the current index used for measuring increases in the prices of consumer goods, including food and beverages, housing, clothing, transportation, medical care, recreation, education and more.

Last year federal retirees received a 1.7 percent COLA to their annuities beginning in January 2015.

We will continue to monitor this. Look for our report on the 2016 COLA in October.

The G Fund Is Safe, for Now

In April, we wrote about a House budget proposal to drastically cut the Thrift Savings Plan G Fund by changing the fund’s interest rate calculation to make it virtually worthless.

The G Fund is the most popular employee investment fund, and this change would potentially have a significant impact on current retirees.

However, the compromise passed by the Budget Committee has dropped this proposal, and the G Fund is safe for now.

Some members of Congress believe the myth that employees investing in the G Fund receive a more generous rate of return than they should, given the limited risk involved with this investment.

In reality, the fund is identical to the current investment arrangement for the Social Security Fund. Deposits are invested in nonmarketable government securities—not only as relatively risk-free investments, but also for the convenience of the United States government in managing the public debt. When the public debt limit ceiling has been close, the Secretary of the Treasury has accessed the G Fund to pay current bills.

FAQs on New Self-Plus-One Insurance Option

In the April Newsletter, we included information about the new Self Plus One plan being offered in the next Open Season, including the fact that insurance providers cannot charge higher premium rates for it than for the Self and Family option.

Recently the Office of Personnel Management released a list of frequently asked questions regarding the Self Plus One option that might pertain to you.

Q. When an enrollee switches a covered family member under Self Plus One enrollment, will protection be extended to the first covered family member to prevent him/her from being dropped randomly?

A. Yes. Enrollees will only be allowed to switch a covered family member during the annual Open Season or upon experiencing one of a limited number of Qualifying Life Events (QLEs). Further, the general rule that the change must be consistent with the QLE experienced applies. For example, if an enrollee has a spouse and a child but only covers their child with a Self Plus One enrollment, when the child turns age 26 the enrollee may choose to stay in Self Plus One but switch their covered family member to remove their child once the child “ages out” and add their spouse. However, if an enrollee covers a spouse under a Self Plus One enrollment and then has a child, the addition of a family member is not a QLE that is consistent with switching a covered family member. In this circumstance, the enrollee would be allowed to increase to Self and Family insurance to cover all of their eligible family members but not to switch from covering their spouse to covering their new child.

Q. If the family member covered under a Self Plus One enrollment changes based on a QLE, will the employee also be able to change from his/her current plan to another?

A. In some instances, yes. If the enrollee experiences a QLE that allows both a change in plan or plan option and a switch in covered family member, then both changes will be allowed.

Q. If the family member covered under a Self Plus One enrollment changes based on a QLE, but the health plan does not change, will the employee just be required to contact the current health plan to identify the new covered family member?

A. No. A new Health Benefits Election Form (SF 2809) will be needed to notify the carrier of the switch in covered family members.

Q. May an enrollee cover a child under a Self Plus One enrollment if their spouse, who is also a federal employee, carries a Self Only enrollment?

A. Yes, so long as no dual enrollments exist.

Q. Will agencies automatically change enrollments for individuals enrolled in Self and Family with only one covered family member?

A. No. Enrollees must positively elect their enrollment type. OPM, agencies and carriers will not initiate enrollment changes on behalf of enrollees without an SF 2809 or through an agency self-service system.

Q. What changes will be made to the SF 2809?

A. The actual form is not being updated. Changes are being made to the form instructions and the QLE chart.

Q. Do online enrollment systems need to be updated with the new Self Plus One information for the upcoming Open Season?

A. Yes. Enrollees will be able to select the new Self Plus One enrollment type during Open Season 2015. All online enrollment systems should be updated by September 1, 2015.

Q. When will OPM release rates for the new Self Plus One option?

A. As is standard operating procedure, OPM will release rates for all FEHB plans in late September or early October.

Q. Is there an expectation that OPM will issue a Benefits Administration Letter (BAL) to address the specifics of the new Self Plus One option?

A. Yes, several BALs are expected to be issued before Open Season 2015.

Additional Guidance

For more information, and to see the entire list of FAQs, visit the OPM website at www.opm.gov/selfplusone.

Window for Survivor Annuity

Reminder to members: If you re-marry in retirement, there is a strict two-year window to elect a survivor annuity for your new spouse. If you fail to make the election, your spouse will have no survivor annuity and no government health insurance at the time of your death.

To elect a survivor annuity if you re-marry, an employee must contact the HR Service Center at HRSC@state.gov or 1-866-300-7419.

Recently an appeals court declined to overturn a decision by OPM that denied a recent widow a survivor annuity because her husband waited too long, three-and-a-half years, to make a survivor annuity election.

AFSA recently received a call from an individual who was denied by the State Department, because they waited close to 10 years—well beyond the two-year window—to make a survivor annuity election for their second spouse.

Please don’t make the same mistake—there is no recourse, and your spouse will be left facing the substantial economic consequences.

FECA Reform

In May, the House Education and Workforce Subcommittee on Workforce Protections held a hearing attended by representatives from the Obama administration and the Department of Labor to discuss ways of reforming the Federal Employees’ Compensation Act.

Enacted in 1916, FECA was established to provide federal employees compensation for medical expenses and wages lost due to job-related injuries or illnesses.

During the hearing, Leonard Howie, Director of the Department of Labor’s Office of Workers’ Compensation Programs, proposed a plan to bring equity to workers’ comp for federal employees, whether or not they have dependents. He also advocated lowering the benefit for injured federal workers once they reach retirement age. The plan has bipartisan support, including from President Obama.

Under the proposed change, the FECA benefit would be reduced to 50 percent of pre-injury salary once the employee reaches Social Security retirement age. The argument is that excessive benefits remove the incentive for employees to return to work, as their tax-free workers’ comp is often more generous than a taxed pension.

AFSA and members of the Federal-Postal Coalition support efforts to modernize and promote new integrity measures, but oppose any proposals to reduce FECA benefits.

The coalition is drafting a letter opposing these changes and will continue to advocate against any reductions to the FECA benefit during the budget process.

Crediting Prior Military Service to Calculate Your Annuity

Since 2014, more than a dozen members have contacted AFSA for assistance on issues related to getting credit for prior federal service, three of them for prior military service. The cases underscore the importance of employees being able to clearly document how much they have paid into pension systems for earlier federal employment, as well as having proof if they have made a deposit to buy back those years, because interest accrues. The longer one waits to buy back prior service, the more it costs. Often, failure by State’s Retirement Office to receive proper documentation of the prior service from OPM causes the problem.

In one case, State’s Retirement Office could not find proof of a 1991 deposit made to buy back seven years of prior military service. In another case, government failure to correctly credit a $15,000 payment to buy back earlier service resulted in the loss of more than $900 a month in annuity payments. Fortunately, employees were able to document the transactions with their own paper records, and the cases were resolved.

The following was taken from a State cable sent by the Office of Retirement on June 10, 2014 [14 STATE 70600] that details the process of crediting prior military service:

Your total length of creditable service is a basic factor in determining when you are eligible to retire and in computing your annuity benefit. If you had military service prior to joining the State Department, you can increase your Foreign Service pension by obtaining credit for that service.

Employees must apply for prior service credit for retirement purposes—a process that is distinct from the process by which prior service time is automatically added to a new employee's service computation date for leave accrual purposes.

In most cases, credit is obtained by making a deposit to cover the employee retirement contributions (plus interest) that were not made originally. Eligible employees are encouraged to obtain credit for their prior service long before they plan to retire. Delaying increases the interest charges that the employee must pay. Also, applications for prior service credit made shortly before retirement can delay the processing of the retirement application.

Starting the process of applying to buy back prior service credit does not obligate the employee to finalize the process by paying. Instead, the employee can make that decision after the Office of Retirement (HR/RET) has calculated the repayment charge and explained how much added annuity the employee stands to receive.

In general, all military service is creditable when the individual served on active duty and received an honorable discharge. Inactive service in the reserves is not creditable, but active service during annual two-week training periods is creditable. If the employee has already been awarded military retired pay based on a 20-year military retirement, the military service is not creditable for federal civilian retirement unless the recipient waives the military retired pay and pays the service deposit.

However, an individual who is awarded military retired pay at age 60 based on service in the reserves can keep the military retired pay and still receive credit in their civilian creditable service for the periods of active duty. Additionally, any service at the military academies is eligible for credit even if the employee is receiving retired military pay.

To apply for credit for prior military service, employees must first obtain a record of their military pay history from the pay center of their former branch of service.

To do so, go to www.opm.gov and type "RI 20-97" in the search box. Fill out the form RI 20-97 (Estimated Earnings During Military Service) online and then print and sign it. Near the top of the form is a link to a list of military pay offices. On that site, you will find the address for your former branch of service.

Send the signed RI 20-97 along with your DD-214 or other documentation of service to that address. Employees who were issued a DD-214, but cannot find it must first obtain a copy by sending a form SF-180 to their former military records center.

Once the military pay center has completed the RI 20-97, the employee should submit it along with their DD-214 or other documentation of service to HR/RET by scanning and emailing it to HRSC@state.gov. Once the employee completes the deposit, HR/RET will update the employee's records to show the added creditable service.

For more information on prior service credit, click on the "Information" tab in EBIS on HR Online. If questions remain after reviewing that information, please email HRSC@state.gov.

Retiree Spotlight: Interview with Mary Ann Singlaub

Born in Ft. Leavenworth, Kan., “Army brat” Mary Ann Singlaub grew up on posts in the United States and Germany, attended four different high schools and graduated in Arlington, Va. She majored in German and Sociology (with a minor in Italian) at the University of Colorado, Boulder. She completed her junior year studying in Germany and, during the summer, in Italy. She earned her master’s degree in International Relations at Georgetown University. She worked briefly for the CIA before joining the Foreign Service as a political officer. After 18 years in the Foreign Service, Singlaub started her second career as a defense contractor.

AFSA: How did you become interested in the Foreign Service?

I graduated from CU Boulder with no idea what I wanted to do, planning to spend a year in Korea where my dad was Chief of Staff of U.S. Forces. When he was reassigned to Ft. McPherson, Georgia, I moved instead to Atlanta. Because of the good will he had earned in Korea, I landed a job with the Korean consulate as a public affairs assistant. Experiencing the inner workings of a foreign diplomatic mission in the United States made me curious about U.S. missions abroad. An international relations professor at Georgia State encouraged me to try the Foreign Service written exam. It took me three tries to pass. I passed the oral on my first try, having just passed my MSFS oral comprehensive exam at Georgetown “with distinction.” I was in the groove!

AFSA: You left the Foreign Service without an immediate annuity. What did you do?

Still in my mid-40s, I had to keep working. Given my political-military work in the Foreign Service and “guns and missiles” specialization at Georgetown, it seemed logical to pursue defense contracting. My first job was supporting the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency on international security. I helped create a better method of managing foreign visitors to DARPA and their off-site Principal Investigator meetings. I briefed DARPA staff on anti-terrorism/force protection and foreign intelligence threats in preparation for their trips overseas. My Foreign Service experience added realism to my briefings. I supported State’s Pol/Mil Bureau, organizing a huge export control conference in England for 120 people from across Europe, for the week after 9/11. As speakers cancelled, I had to scramble to fill slots and carry it off. My Foreign Service background empowered me to manage that crisis. Other defense contracting supported the Navy International Programs Office, Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organization and the Army Office of Defense Exports and Cooperation. These stints augmented my Foreign Service-honed writing and networking skills with practical new knowledge and contacts in tech transfer, international security, foreign disclosure, export licenses and compliance, foreign visits, foreign military sales policy and more.

AFSA: What do you believe are the most valuable FS lessons for your post-FS career?

Networking, briefing, writing concisely, meeting tight deadlines and the ability to travel at the drop of a hat. Six weeks after I started as NATO & European Command desk officer at JIEDDO J-5 International, I had to escort a brigadier general and Navy captain to Brussels for a NATO Counter-IED conference, after which I arranged travel to EUCOM in Stuttgart and other posts across Germany, preparing a comprehensive briefing book and force protection briefings, securing country and combatant command clearances, and scheduling to maximize the value of our short visit. I could not have done that on such short notice without my Foreign Service training. Foreign Service-honed networking skills are also critical. As a regional labor attaché in Barbados, I nominated labor contacts in 12 countries for labor study programs in the United States, building lifelong networks. In Bern, I made excellent European contacts preparing mandated State reports on terrorism, refugees, elections, narcotics control, human rights and export control. My Foreign Service contact networks have given me valuable insights to support my DoD clients.

AFSA: What are your future plans?

Continue doing work that utilizes my Top Secret security clearance. Having moved so frequently, I hope to remain in Vienna, Va, for now, enjoying easy access to AFSA, DACOR, State and Foreign Service colleagues and government contracting opportunities. AFSA keeps me in touch with State Department activities and personnel, valuable to my work. I enjoy volunteering as an English (ESOL) instructor and as vice president of public relations with Toastmasters International in Northern Virginia. My Foreign Service career gave me work experiences, lifelong contacts and love of travel to succeed in my second career.

NARFE Cover Story on FS

The June issue of narfe magazine, the monthly publication of the National Active and Retired Federal Employees Association (www.narfe.org), featured a cover story on the Foreign Service.

AFSA, along with several of our members, helped contribute to the article written by Washington, D.C., freelance writer David Tobenkin.

In the article, AFSA hoped to dispel some of the myths of the Foreign Service and highlight what makes the Service both unique and challenging.

Tobenkin wrote about the career structure and basic benefits, while emphasizing the extraordinary experiences and opportunities of the Foreign Service, coupled with the dangers and career, personal and financial challenges.

To read the full article visit, http://bit.ly/1JI5M1X.

AFSA Launches New Assistant Secretary Tracker

AFSA’s revised tracker for assistant secretary positions at the State Department provides critical data to understand the trend toward politicization of foreign affairs positions in the federal government.

This tracker shows that for State A/S positions, 40 percent of the Obama administration’s nominees have been career Foreign Service and 60 percent have been from outside the Foreign Service.

Our data goes back to the 1970s for each bureau. We are in the process of analyzing statistics by administration for a look at how the current administration compares with its predecessors.

The Assistant Secretary of State Tracker complements AFSA’s Ambassador Tracker, which is widely used by the media and the public.

To view both trackers, visit www.afsa.org/assistantsecretaries and www.afsa.org/ambassadors.

Announcement of AFSA Election Results

The AFSA Committee on Elections is pleased to announce the results of the 2015-2017 Governing Board elections and Bylaw Amendment.

Having met the two-thirds voting requirement according to AFSA Bylaws, the amendment to re-size the AFSA Governing Board is adopted.

The following AFSA members have been elected:

Officer Positions on the Board

President:

Barbara Stephenson

Secretary:

Bill Haugh

Treasurer:

Charles A. Ford

Retiree Vice President:

Tom Boyatt

Constituency Representatives of the Board

Retiree Representatives (4 positions):

John Limbert
Alphonse F. La Porta
Patricia Butenis
Dean Haas

For a full list of election results, please visit www.afsa.org/2015results.

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