Some groups of federal employees have special provisions that allow them to retire earlier than most other employees and receive a more generous annuity computation. Among these are law enforcement officers and firefighters.
In this column I’ll lay out the rules governing law enforcement officer and firefighter retirement under the Civil Service Retirement System. Next time I’ll do the same for those covered by the Federal Employees Retirement System.
A law enforcement officer, as defined by the Office of Personnel Management, is an employee whose duties are primarily the investigation, apprehension or detention of individuals suspected or convicted of criminal offenses. The definition does not include an employee whose primary duties are maintaining law and order, protecting life and property, guarding against or inspecting for violations of law, or investigating persons other than those suspected or convicted of criminal offenses.
A firefighter is an employee whose duties are primarily directly connected with the control and extinguishing of fires or the maintenance and use of firefighting equipment. The definition does not include employees whose primary duty is routine fire prevention.
Both definitions include employees who move directly from primary law enforcement officer or firefighter positions to secondary positions, where the employees serve either as first-level supervisors over law enforcement officers or firefighter personnel or in administrative jobs for which primary law enforcement of firefighting experience is a prerequisite.
To be eligible to retire under the special CSRS provisions, you must be at least age 50 with 20 or more years of service, separate from a position covered by CSRS and have been covered by CSRS for at least one year within the two years immediately before you retire. Accumulated sick leave can’t be used to meet the minimum service requirements. Nor can military service, unless you went on active duty directly from a law enforcement officer or firefighter position and then returned to a covered position.
Once you have met the 20-year service requirements to retire, you don’t need to stay in a law enforcement officer or firefighter position to have that portion of your annuity computed using the enhanced formula.
In general, all law enforcement officers and firefighters are subject to mandatory separation at age 57.
If you have completed 20 years of service under the special retirement provision, you must be separated on the last day of the month in which you reach the mandatory age, but only if you are currently occupying a law enforcement or firefighter position.
If you are already at the mandatory separation age and haven’t completed 20 years of service, you must be separated on the last day of the month in which you complete 20 years. However, in the public interest, your agency head may exempt you from mandatory separation until age 60. To secure an exemption beyond that, the agency head must get the approval of OPM.
Because law enforcement officers and firefighters generally have shorter and more hazardous careers, their annuities are computed using a more generous formula than the one used for other CSRS employees. For this enhanced benefit, they contribute 2.5 percent of their basic pay to the retirement fund.
The annuity is the sum of:
- 2.5 percent of your highest three consecutive years of average pay, your high-three, multiplied by 20 years of covered service.
- 2.0 percent of your high-three multiplied by all remaining years of service.
For example, if you were a law enforcement officer or firefighter who had a high-three of $100,000, 2.5 percent of that would be $2,500. Multiplying that figure by 20 years of service would produce $50,000. If you had five additional years of service, take 2 percent of your high-three — or $2,000 — and multiply it by 5. The product — $10,000 — would be added to the $50,000 and yield an annuity of $60,000.
So a 20-year career will produce an annuity that is 50 percent of your high-three. Each additional year of service will increase your annuity 2 percent. If you had a 30-year career, your annuity would be 70 percent of your high-three. A 35-year career would be 80 percent.
Although a CSRS annuity as a general rule may not exceed 80 percent of your high-three, there is an exception: Sick leave is not in that limitation. So, if you had a long career and plenty of unused sick leave, you could receive an annuity greater than 80 percent.