By Debbie Siegelbaum - 05/10/11 10:30 AM EDT
It was a bittersweet moment when Tony Gillus accepted his wristwatch from the U.S. Capitol Police union honoring his retirement from the force.
An officer for more than 20 years, Gillus joked with his fellow retirees as he received the gift at a party at police headquarters in March. But afterward, Gillus confided that he wasn’t going to go out and celebrate. He was going to look for work.
Gillus is one of many former Capitol Police officers feeling the financial squeeze after reaching the department’s mandatory retirement age of 57. Bureaucratic delays and benefit discrepancies are leaving many with reduced to no income for months, or even years, at a time.
Scot Humphrey retired from the force in December and has started a small lawn and landscaping business in southern Maryland while he waits for his retirement benefits to kick in.
But the business has been slow to take off, and Humphrey expressed concern that he might have to dip into his savings to make ends meet. “The only thing holding me afloat at the moment is [that] I was fortunate enough to accumulate use-or-lose annual leave, so I got a big lump check,” he said.
As federal employees, Capitol Police officers are eligible to receive a mix of Social Security, basic benefits — which are a percentage of their final years’ base salaries — and a tax-deferred Thrift savings plan similar to a 401(k).
Benefits are coordinated through the Office of Personnel Management (OPM). Officers are told to expect 60 days for processing, but Capitol Police retirees have waited anywhere from four to nine months to start receiving payments.
“It took five and a half months before I got a regular check,” retired officer Larry Bennett said. “They tell you a year in advance, ‘You’ve got to leave next year, because you’re at the mandatory age.’ But my money can’t be right? What’s wrong with that picture?”
According to Humphrey, “The holdup is OPM.
“OPM handles all federal government retirees, and that’s nationwide,” he said. “They aren’t staffed to handle the load, and that’s why the backup is probably growing.”
When The Hill contacted OPM, the wait time to speak to a representative topped more than 10 minutes on several occasions.
Benefit delays are the result of a “confluence” of factors, an OPM spokeswoman wrote in an email. The office has redesigned all aspects of retirement processing simultaneously, and anticipated reliance on automation has led to lower staffing levels. As manpower was reduced, however, the office was hit with an increased volume — and complexity — of casework.
“There is no simple or easy solution that is capable of instantly remedying the problem,” the spokeswoman said. “But we are doing everything in our power to improve service to our annuitants as rapidly as possible within the constraint of available resources.”
The OPM holdup is just one issue former Capitol Police officers said they would like to see addressed.
The mandatory retirement age of 57 has been set under the Capitol Police Retirement Act. This is designed to keep a youthful and vigorous workforce, Capitol Police Labor Committee Chairman Jim Konczos said. But he pointed out that officers are keeping more fit and able even longer.
“You want me to do a handstand right here?” Gillus asked. “I’m an old guy, but I’m more fit than most of the guys here.”
Several officers have expressed concern that — aside from pushing out employees who are still able to contribute — mandatory retirements are leaving the Capitol Police understaffed and the Capitol at risk.
One officer who spoke on the condition of anonymity said the last recruit class had 12 people, but the force had approximately 20 people retire in the last three months, leaving a sizable gap.
Several officers reported that their bosses are relying increasingly on overtime for staffing purposes and that certain sections have cut back manpower to an “inadequate level.”
“The congressional community is at risk at the staffing levels they’re putting everyone at right now,” said another officer who preferred to remain anonymous.
To combat these issues, many officers are calling for the mandatory retirement age to be raised to at least 60 but concede that regular physicals should be required to assess fitness for the job.
This would not only maintain an experienced police force but could also result in financial benefits, they said.
“At a time where you’re having a lot of municipalities — New York, California — where retirement banks are being depleted, my thinking is, wouldn’t it be beneficial to have senior officers who are still paying into the system?” said Greg Baird, the Capitol Police Labor Committee’s secretary.
Baird said officers who retire later spend less time drawing benefits from the federal government and more time putting money into the benefit pool.
In addition, officers hope their retirement benefits are restructured to align with those of police officers elsewhere in the country.
“Anybody who goes to a county police department, their benefits are a lot better,” Konczos said.
That disparity hasn’t been lost on Rep. Robert Brady (D-Pa.), the House Administration Committee’s ranking member and the son of a law enforcement officer.
“I have discussed Capitol Police retirement benefits with many officers,” the former committee chairman wrote in an email to The Hill. “Congress must provide the benefits that these hardworking men and women earn while protecting the Capitol.”
To that end, Brady asked the Government Accountability Office (GAO) last year to compare Capitol Police retirement benefits with those available at other federal agencies.
The GAO’s evaluation will include statutory authorities, missions, pay and retirement benefits as well as hiring and retention rates across agencies, a GAO spokeswoman said.
“Pay [and] retirement benefits at federal uniformed police agencies in the D.C. area have differed, despite these agencies performing similar functions,” according to a review summary provided by a GAO spokeswoman. “Concerns exist that attrition is higher at agencies offering less pay [and] fewer benefits.”
The GAO review is in the early stages, and no release date has been set yet, but Brady wrote he is “eager” to analyze the results with committee colleagues and Chairman Dan Lungren (R-Calif.).
Until then, retired officers will do what they can to get by. They are “at an age where you’re still carrying a mortgage, you have kids in college and everything else,” Konczos said. “They’re just trying to do the best they can.”
Gillus finally started receiving benefits in mid-April — nearly five months after his retirement — but for less money than he expected.
He hasn’t received an answer from OPM regarding the reduced amount and is still looking for work to bolster his income.
“I feel left out, no money, no job,” he said. “I did everything they said to do … I must not have done enough, because I didn’t seem too important when this time came. And it’s kind of disheartening to think you’ve given everything.”