BY KENNETH KERO-MENTZ
When I joined the State Department nearly 20 years ago, there was a widely held belief discussed at length during A-100 that a “normal career span” would be about 20 years, and that during that time FSOs would progress from FS-5 or -6 to FS-1. Of course, the best and brightest would rise to the ranks of the Senior Foreign Service, but the baseline for a solid career to which we all aspired was to reach FS-1.
A funny thing has happened over the ensuing two decades, however. Slowly but surely, more and more of our colleagues are not reaching FS-1 within 20 years, despite putting in consistently strong performances year after year. Indeed, a recent review of the classes now reaching 20 years showed that roughly a quarter are still stuck in the terrible twos.
For most of us, this is a blow to our ego, and we search for reasons why we languish. But the fact is, promotion rates have slowed. And the A-100 class size has increased as a result of hiring surges under Secretaries of State Colin Powell and Hillary Clinton.
Furthermore, the position base at the top hasn’t kept up with the growth in the midlevel ranks, making promotions even harder. And the lower promotion rates under Secretary Tillerson, coupled with the fact that more and more senior positions are going to political appointees, make it tougher still.
The system is stacked against us at levels unforeseen when we joined, and that means many will hit 20 years as an FS-2. In the end, we are told, we should still be proud of our service to the American people, and it’s not that big a deal.
Except when it is. In the early 1970s, if an officer reached their Time in Class without being promoted, they were shown the door. And if they had yet to hit 20 years or age 50, they lost their pension, health insurance and other retirement benefits.
AFSA will continue to insist that the department do the right thing by those who have served this country so well and faithfully.
In 1971, FSO Charles Thomas was “TIC-ed” out before reaching the age of 50 or 20 years of service. Unable to care for his wife and children, he committed suicide. It was later revealed that the department had “inadvertently” lost parts of his personnel file, so his final review wasn’t even complete. Back then, there was no grievance process, and AFSA was not yet recognized as the exclusive representative of the Foreign Service.
Mr. Thomas’ widow, Cynthia, met with members of Congress, who passed Private Law 93-108 a few years later reinstating his salary, pension and benefits. In addition, President Gerald Ford wrote a personal note to Mrs. Thomas stating that he hoped “that the measures which came about as a result of this tragedy will prevent reoccurrences of this kind in the future.”
Among those measures (as demonstrated in documents maintained by the Ford Presidential Library at www.bit.ly/FordLibraryDoc) was the creation of our grievance system and establishment of the so-called “annuity exception.” The latter allows members of the Foreign Service at the FS-2 level or below who are TIC-ed out but have yet to reach age 50 to remain in the Service, without further promotion, until reaching that required milestone, at which point they retire with their pension and health insurance.
Shockingly, the department began questioning the annuity exception over the past six months, even telling some members that they would be dismissed prior to reaching age 50 despite the fact that poor performance was not an issue.
But AFSA fought back and was recently informed that—as in the U.S. military—for the present, at least, “the department will apply the annuity exception … to those employees who are not eligible for an immediate annuity.” With the so-called “pig in the python” at its fullest and promotions lagging, now is not the time to challenge the annuity exception. We’ve seen where that can lead, and it’s tragic.
AFSA has been pushing the department to put more midlevel positions overseas, to rebuild and reinvigorate the economic cone and to return promotion levels to the department’s own projections according to its Five-Year Plan. When so many talented officers face an early end to their careers for structural reasons not of their making, we will continue to insist that the department do the right thing by those who have served this country so well and faithfully.