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Federal workers' pensions targeted in budget deal

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Distinctly unpopular among voters and a scant presence in most congressional districts, federal workers have become an easy target in the hunt for budget savings.

Their retirement programs are notably generous compared to the norm in private industry. But for federal workers hired after 2012, the pension program is turning less generous.

Most federal civilian employees hired beginning in January will contribute 4.4 percent of their pay to their pension plans under the House-passed budget bill the Senate is expected to approve this week. Government workers hired in 2013 will continue paying 3.1 percent of their gross pay to help cover their pensions; those on the federal payroll before then, 0.8 percent.

"It's insane they should be expected to fund government," said Jackie Simon, policy director for the American Federation for Government Employees, the union representing 630,000 federal workers. "It's a big country. The burden should be spread more broadly."

But with pensions for nongovernment workers on a path toward extinction, federal employees get little sympathy from some experts.

"Their private sector counterparts would be jealous of the benefits they're maintaining," said John Ehrhardt, a principal at the actuarial and consulting firm Milliman.

While 38 percent of private industry workers received pensions in 1979, just 14 percent did so in 2011, the most recent figures from the Employee Benefit Research Institute, which advocates for benefit programs.

Besides retaining their pensions, most federal workers also can contribute to a 401(k)-like savings program, the Thrift Savings Plan.

That combination is far better than what's available to most private industry workers. In 2011, only 11 percent of employees in the private sector had both savings plans and monthly pension payments, according to the research institute.

For federal workers, the government matches up to the first 5 percent of employees' contributions to their retirement savings.

Only about 4 in 10 companies offer retirement savings plans, a number that's been growing. The most common practice is for employers to match half what workers contribute up to the first 6 percent of pay, according to an industry survey.

Federal workers and their supporters argue that their pensions can't be considered in a vacuum.

The 2.2 million federal civilian employees have had their pay frozen for the past three years. In addition, most were furloughed for at least a day without pay this year, thanks to the automatic spending cuts triggered by the two parties' budget standoff.

Federal workers aren't the only public employees facing growing pension expenses. Such plans remain common for many state and local workers, and 30 states imposed higher pension costs on their employees between 2009 and 2012, according to a National Conference of State Legislatures survey.

Such plans — called defined benefits because employers must spend whatever is needed to fully finance them — have been fading in the private sector for decades, as companies shed those expenses. Many firms have shifted to savings plans to which they make a defined contribution, making workers face the risk if investments go bad.

Federal workers "have to be careful about crying foul over something for which the other solution would be to eliminate it," said Lynn Dudley, senior policy vice president for the American Benefits Council, representing big companies that provide retirement benefits.

Most federal workers hired before 1984 are covered by the older Civil Service Retirement System. They contribute 7 percent of their earnings for their pensions but are not covered by Social Security — thus avoiding the 6.2 percent Social Security payroll tax other workers pay.

When Congress strengthened Social Security's finances in 1983, it put federal workers hired starting in 1984 under a new Federal Employees' Retirement System. They contribute 0.8 percent of their pay to their pensions, but also pay Social Security taxes.

In 2012, that pension contribution was raised to 3.1 percent. Earlier this year, federal workers' retirement costs seemed on track for deeper increases than those the budget deal would impose.

The Republican-run House approved a budget deducting 6.35 percent from all federal workers' paychecks, not just new hires, to help cover their pensions, saving the government $130 billion over a decade.

President Barack Obama earlier this year proposed saving $20 billion by gradually raising their pension contributions by 1.2 percent.

Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, top Democrat on the House Budget Committee, said he signed off on the $6 billion increase for new federal employees hired beginning in January after Obama assured him he would propose no new retirement benefit cuts in next year's budget.

Van Hollen, whose district has many federal workers, said Obama made that commitment by phone last week as Air Force One refueled on its way to ceremonies for the late South African leader Nelson Mandela.

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