FERS benefits for law enforcement, firefighters

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My Nov. 12 column reviewed the Civil Service Retirement System rules for law enforcement officers and firefighters. This column does the same for the Federal Employees Retirement System.

A law enforcement officer (LEO), as defined by the Office of Personnel Management, is an employee in “a rigorous position” whose duties are the investigation, apprehension or detention of individuals suspected or convicted of criminal offenses, or the protection of U.S. officials against threats to personal safety. This definition does not include an employee whose primary duties involve maintaining order, protecting life and property, guarding against or inspecting for violations of law, or investigating people other than those suspected or convicted of criminal offenses.

A firefighter is an employee in “a rigorous position” whose primary duties are directly connected with controlling and extinguishing fires. The definition does not include an employee whose primary duty is routine fire prevention inspection or maintenance or use of firefighting apparatus and equipment.

Both definitions include employees who move directly from rigorous LEO or firefighter positions to secondary positions, where the employees serve either as first-level supervisors over LEO or firefighter personnel or in administrative jobs for which experience in a rigorous law enforcement or firefighting position is a prerequisite.

Just like their CSRS counterparts, FERS law enforcement officers and firefighters can retire at age 50 with 20 years of covered service. However, unlike them, they can also retire at any age with 25 years of covered service. Unused sick leave can’t be used to meet the minimum service requirement. Nor can military service, unless you go on active duty and return to a covered position.

Once the minimum 20-year-service requirement is met, an LEO or firefighter does not need to stay in a covered position to retire and receive the enhanced annuity computation for that service.

All LEOs and firefighters are subject to mandatory separation at age 57, but only if they are occupying an LEO or firefighter position. Those who have completed 20 years as an LEO or firefighter must separate on the last day of the month in which they reach 57. Those already 57 who haven’t completed 20 years of service must separate on the last day of the month in which they complete 20 years. An agency head may exempt an employee from mandatory separation until age 60. OPM must approve exemptions beyond that.

Because of their generally shorter and more hazardous careers, LEOs and firefighters receive a more generous annuity computation than other FERS employees. For this enhanced benefit, they contribute 1.7 percent of basic pay to the retirement fund instead of 0.8 percent.

The annuity is the sum of:

  • 1.7 percent of the average of your highest three consecutive years of pay, your high-three, multiplied by 20 years of service.
  • 1.0 percent of your high-three multiplied by all remaining service beyond 20 years.

For example, if your high-three were $100,000, 1.7 percent of that would be $1,700. Multiplying that figure by 20 years of service would produce $34,000. If you had five additional years of service, you’d take 1 percent of the high-three — or $1,000 — and multiply it by 5. The product — $5,000 — would be added to the $34,000 and yield an annuity of $39,000.

While unused sick leave may not be added to the years of service to qualify for retirement, it would be added to your actual service and increase the amount of your final annuity. While CSRS employees receive full credit for those hours, FERS employees who retire before Jan. 1, 2014, get credit for only half of it.

If you are under age 62 when you retire, you’ll also receive a special retirement supplement that approximates the Social Security benefit you earned while you were a FERS employee and continues until age 62, when you are eligible for a Social Security benefit. The supplement doesn’t include active-duty service for which you’ve made a deposit to the retirement fund.

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