Chapter 3, Section 8: Specific Annuity Rules Applying to Special Groups
Members of several special groups pay differing levels of employee contributions toward retirement and are eligible to retire under age and service combinations that differ from those applying to standard retirement.
- By Almanac Staff
- Feb 19, 2012
Members of several special groups pay differing levels of employee contributions toward retirement and are eligible to retire under age and service combinations that differ from those applying to standard retirement. The largest of these categories are law enforcement officers, firefighters, and air traffic controllers. (For standard policies on contributions and benefit eligibility, see Required Contributions from Employees in Section 2 of this chapter; also see CSRS and FERS: Basic Annuity Computations in Section 4 of this chapter.)
In general, the rules defining membership in a special group are the same for FERS and CSRS (see 5 CFR 842.802). The major difference is that the FERS definition of a law enforcement officer (LEO) or firefighter position includes a requirement that the positions be limited to "young and vigorous" personnel. Second, in order to qualify for the special benefits, those under FERS must have occupied a primary or first-line law enforcement or firefighter position for at least three years before moving to a secondary (that is an administrative or supervisory) position. Agency heads may determine that some supervisory positions are "primary" because they meet the "young and vigorous" requirement.
Service Credit-- As a rule, only the years and months of actual law enforcement, firefighter or air traffic controller service can be counted as creditable service for purposes of these special provisions. For example, unused sick leave cannot be added to meet the service requirement. Neither can periods of military service, with this exception: if an employee is called to active duty while serving in a covered position and later returns to a covered position, that time will be included when determining the years of service needed to retire under the special provisions as well as in the annuity calculation. See Chapter 46, Section A3.3-1B, Note 2 in the CSRS and FERS Handbook for Personnel and Payroll Offices at www.opm.gov/retire/pubs/handbook/hod.htm.
Mandatory Retirement-- CSRS and FERS firefighters and law enforcement officers generally are subject to mandatory retirement at age 57 with at least 20 years of covered special group service. An agency head may retain a law enforcement officer until age 60 if the agency head finds that the LEO's continued service is in the public interest (5 U.S.C. 8335(b) and 5 U.S.C. 8425(b)). The FBI has limited authority to raise the age to up to 65. A CSRS law enforcement officer may be retained beyond age 60 with OPM's permission. A FERS LEO may be retained beyond age 60 with the permission of the President.
An air traffic controller must be separated from the service on the last day of the month in which he or she becomes age 56. However, the law does not apply to a person appointed as an ATC by the Department of Transportation before May 16, 1972, or by the Department of Defense before September 12, 1980. Mandatory retirement also applies to career Foreign Service officers at 65.
In occupations where mandatory retirement applies, there typically is a maximum entry age for hiring so that employees can put in 20 years of service before retirement (five years for career Foreign Service officers). However, Section 1086 of Public Law 111-84, effective October 28, 2009, increased the maximum age limit for an original appointment as a FERS LEO or firefighter to 47 for individuals receiving retired pay or retainer pay for military service or premium or compensation from the Department of Veterans Affairs instead of military retired or retainer pay. While still subject to mandatory retirement at age 57, they may retire at that age with 10 years of covered service.
Also, agencies may waive a maximum age limit for applicants with veterans' preference on a determination that age is not essential to the position. For individuals hired under such waivers, the mandatory retirement age is increased correspondingly. See Veterans' Hiring Preference in Chapter 8, Section 8.
Law Enforcement-- A law enforcement officer is defined as an employee occupying a rigorous position, whose primary duties are the investigation, apprehension, or detention of individuals suspected or convicted of offenses against the criminal laws of the United States, or the protection of officials of the United States against threats to personal safety. Also included in this definition is an employee occupying a rigorous law enforcement officer position who moves to a supervisory or administrative position and meets certain conditions.
Section 535 of Division E, Public Law 110-161, extended law enforcement officer status to Customs and Border Protection Officers (CBPOs) in the Department of Homeland Security effective July 6, 2008. All covered CBPOs--those in the GS-1895 job series or those whose duties include activities relating to the arrival and departure of persons, conveyances and merchandise at ports of entry--hired on or after that date are included in the law enforcement officer category under the same terms as other covered officers. They are eligible for retirement under the terms described under FERS Special Group Rules below, and are subject to mandatory retirement.
CBPOs who were on board prior to July 6, 2008 are eligible for an immediate annuity after meeting the standard FERS or CSRS age and service requirements and are not subject to mandatory retirement. They had an opportunity in early 2008 to opt out of law enforcement officer coverage and continue to pay standard retirement deductions and have their entire retirement calculation based on standard terms.
Those who did not opt out became covered by the law enforcement provisions including the higher employee contributions beginning on July 6, 2008. Their retirement benefit is a combination of the two types of coverage: their benefit for service before that date will be calculated based on their retirement coverage for that period, added to a benefit for service up to 20 years performed as a CBPO after that date that will be calculated based on the law enforcement retirement formula. For example, a FERS-covered CBPO who retires in 2018 with 30 years of service--10 years of which were performed as a CBPO after the effective date of the CBPO retirement coverage--would receive a benefit of 1.7 percent x high-3 x 10 years of service plus 1 percent x high-3 x 20 years of service. Covered service starting July 6, 2008 may be combined with service performed in other special retirement categories in order to qualify for early optional retirement.
Implementing rules are at 5 CFR Parts 831, 841, and 842.
Firefighters-- A firefighter is defined as an employee occupying a rigorous position, whose primary duties are to perform work directly connected with the control and extinguishment of fires. Also included in this definition is an employee occupying a rigorous firefighter position who moves to a supervisory or administrative position and meets certain conditions.
Air Traffic Controllers-- An air traffic controller is a civilian employee of the Department of Transportation or the Department of Defense in an air traffic control facility or flight service station facility who is actively engaged in the separation and control of air traffic or in providing preflight, inflight, or airport advisory service to aircraft operators. Also included in this definition are first- and second-level supervisors (supervisors of immediate supervisors of frontline ATCs) of such persons. (Note: second-level supervisors are excluded from mandatory separation).
Public Law 108-176 expanded the definition of air traffic controller for retirement purposes to include second-level supervisors. In general, second-level ATC service which was performed before February 10, 2004, is creditable as ATC service for CSRS and FERS retirement purposes when retirement eligibility is based on a separation on or after February 10, 2004. However, FERS credit for pre-February 10, 2004, second-level supervisory ATC service requires the payment of a deposit. No additional contributions for pre-February 10, 2004, second-level supervisory ATC service under CSRS are required. Rules at 5 CFR 842.811 establish the time, form, and manner for deposits.
Legislative Officials and Employees-- A "member of Congress" for retirement system purposes includes a Senator, Representative in Congress, Delegate from a Territory, the Resident Commissioner from Puerto Rico, and the Vice President (see 5 U.S.C. 2106). All members of Congress first elected after 1983 are covered by Social Security and have the option of joining FERS but are not required to do so. Members who were in Congress before 1984 were given the following choices: to stay in CSRS in addition to being covered by Social Security, to elect coverage under CSRS Offset, to elect coverage under FERS in addition to being covered by Social Security, or to be covered only by Social Security.
A "congressional employee" for retirement system purposes includes employees of the Senate and House of Representatives, employees of the various committees of Congress, elective officers of the Senate or House who are not members of Congress, legislative counsels and their employees, Architect of the Capitol and United States Botanical Garden personnel, employees of the Congressional Record Index Office and the Capitol Guide Service, Official Reporters of Debates in the Senate and their employees, members of the Capitol Police force, and any employee of the Vice President or of any member of Congress whose salary is disbursed by the Secretary of the Senate or the Clerk of the House.
Federal Judges-- The Administrative Office of the United States Courts administers three retirement plans for federal judges:
- The Judicial Retirement System automatically covers United States Supreme Court justices, federal circuit and district court judges, and territorial district court judges and is available, at their option, to certain other judicial officials.
- The United States Court of Federal Claims Judges' Retirement System covers United States Court of Federal Claims judges.
- The Judicial Officers' Retirement Fund covers bankruptcy and full-time magistrate judges.
Those in the former two systems are eligible to retire when the number of years of service and the judge's age total at least 80, with a minimum retirement age of 65, and service ranging from 10 to 15 years. Those in the third are eligible to retire at age 65 with at least 14 years of service or may retire at age 65 with 8 years of service, on a less than full benefit. Survivor benefits for spouses and children can be provided at a cost of 2.2 percent of salary for active judges and 3.5 percent of annuities for retired judges.
Judges who retire under the judicial retirement plans generally continue to receive the full salary amounts that were paid immediately before retirement, assuming the judges met the age and service requirements.
Participants in all three judicial retirement plans are required to contribute to and receive Social Security benefits. Also, except for judges who are automatically covered under the Judicial Retirement System, judges and judicial officials may opt to participate in the Federal Employees Retirement System or elect to participate in the Judicial Retirement System.
Former Presidents-- Under the 1958 Former Presidents Act, former Presidents receive an annual pension equal to the pay rate for Executive Schedule Level I. An annual benefit of $20,000 is provided to a surviving spouse who waives the right to an annuity that would be available under any other legislation.
Military Reserve Technicians-- A military reserve technician, or National Guard technician, is a civilian employee who is a member of the Army National Guard of the United States, the Army Reserve, the Naval Reserve, the Marine Corps Reserve, the Air Force Reserve, or the Coast Guard Reserve who is assigned to duties in one of these components and who is required to maintain a specific military grade in order to continue in his or her civilian employment.
Foreign Service-- See Foreign Service in Chapter 8, Section 1.
CSRS Special Group Rules
Law Enforcement and Firefighter Personnel-- If you are an employee whose duties are in the law enforcement or firefighter categories you may voluntarily retire if you are age 50 or over, and have completed at least 20 years of such service. Mandatory retirement applies under the provisions listed in General, above. Employee and agency contributions to the Civil Service Retirement and Disability Fund are 7.5 percent. The basic annuity of an employee who retires under the special provision for law enforcement and/or firefighter personnel is figured by taking 2.5 percent of the "high-3" average pay and multiplying the result by 20 years of law enforcement and/or firefighter service, plus 2 percent of the high-3 average pay multiplied by all service over 20 years (including credit for sick leave). There is no annuity reduction for retiring under age 55.
Air Traffic Controllers-- Air traffic controllers (ATC) are entitled to optional retirement at age 50 with 20 years as ATC or any age with 25 years as ATC. An ATC retiring under this provision is guaranteed an annuity of no less than 50 percent of his or her high-3 average pay. Mandatory retirement applies under the provisions listed in General, above. There is no annuity reduction for retiring under age 55.
- Legislative Officials and Employees-- In most respects the system's provisions for members of Congress and congressional employees parallel those for federal employees generally, but there are differences. The payroll deduction rate for members of Congress is 8.5 percent of salary for CSRS; the deduction rate for congressional employees is 8 percent. Their civil service annuities are computed under a special modification of the standard annuity formula, in each instance, as follows:
- Member of Congress: A member retiring with at least five years of service as a member, as congressional employee, or both, and with his or her last five years' civilian service covered by deductions or deposit, is afforded a basic annuity computed as 2.5 percent of high-3 average salary and multiplied by years of member service, military service (for which not receiving retired pay) performed while on leave of absence as member during war or national emergency, other military service (for which not receiving retired pay) up to five years, and congressional employee service. The basic annuity may not exceed 80 percent of the final salary.
- Congressional employee: A congressional employee, with at least five years of service in that capacity, or as a member of Congress, or both, and with his or her last five years' civilian service covered by deductions or deposit, retiring from the congressional employee position or from any position wherein he or she is subject to the retirement system, is afforded basic annuity consisting of: 2.5 percent of high-3 average salary and multiply by years of all congressional employee service plus creditable military service not exceeding five years; and any prior service as member of Congress. The basic annuity may not exceed 80 percent of high-3 average salary, except if the additional percentage is produced by unused sick leave.
Service other than as a member or staff of Congress is computed under standard CSRS rules.
Congressional staff and members of Congress are able to designate survivor benefits under the same rules and reductions as are available to other employees covered by the program. However, members of Congress who die between leaving office and becoming eligible for retirement benefits leave their survivors with entitlement rights as if they were eligible for retirement on the day of their deaths, provided that they have not withdrawn their contributions to the program.
Military Reserve Technicians-- A technician is treated the same as any other employee under CSRS. A technician who is involuntarily separated (not for delinquency or misconduct) from his/her position can get a discontinued service annuity at any age with 25 years of service, or at age 50 with 20 years of service. The annuity is reduced at a rate of 2 percent for each year the employee is under 55 years of age. A National Guard technician who is medically disqualified for military duty and who has five years of creditable civilian service may receive disability benefits without meeting the usual CSRS disability criteria. This special provision does not apply to military reserve technicians.
FERS Special Group Rules
Firefighters, Law Enforcement Officers, and Air Traffic Controllers-- Employees in these categories are eligible for unreduced benefits at age 50 and 20 years of covered service, or any age and 25 years of such service. Mandatory retirement applies under the provisions listed in General, above. There is no annuity reduction for retiring under age 55.
The annuity is 1.7 percent of high-3 pay multiplied by years of service up to 20 and 1 percent times all remaining service.
Employees contribute an additional 0.5 percent of pay for this enhanced benefit. A special retirement supplement paid to age 62 equals the estimated Social Security benefit earned while covered by FERS. It is not subject to the Social Security earnings test, until the employee reaches the minimum retirement age. Annual cost-of-living adjustments (COLAs) apply at all ages.
Special Note for CSRS-to-FERS Transfers-- Law enforcement, firefighter and air traffic controller personnel who switched from CSRS coverage to the FERS retirement plan and retire under these special annuity provisions are entitled to "restart" the FERS annuity calculation clock. This means that these CSRS transferees can use the higher FERS computation rate of 1.7 percent when multiplying all their years of FERS-covered service in these positions (up to the specified maximum of 20). Generally, an employee's years of CSRS-covered service as a law enforcement officer, firefighter or air traffic controller do not count toward the 20-year limit on using FERS higher 1.7 percent computation rate when calculating the FERS component of the worker's federal retirement annuity.
This restarting of the annuity calculation clock does not change the rules governing mandatory retirement.
Example: An employee worked six years in a CSRS-covered law enforcement position before transferring to the FERS system in 1987. The worker's service credit clock for purposes of using FERS higher computation rate is reset or re-triggered at the point of the retirement plan transfer. Thus, the employee could have accumulated up to 20 years of FERS service computed at the 1.7 percent rate. In addition, the CSRS component of the worker's combined annuity will reflect six years of CSRS service computed at the 2.5 percent rate.
Legislative Officials and Employees-- These classes contribute an additional 0.5 percent of pay. For members of Congress only, there is an unreduced annuity at age 50 and 20 years of service, or any age and 25 years of service. The annuity is 1.7 percent of high-3 x years of service up to 20, and 1 percent x years over 20. An earnings-tested supplement is paid from minimum retirement age (MRA) to age 62. Service other than as a member or staff of Congress is computed under standard FERS rules.
Military Reserve Technicians-- Under FERS, a technician who is separated from civilian service because he/she no longer qualifies as a member of a military reserve component may retire and receive an unreduced annuity at age 50 with 25 years of service. If military status is lost due to a disability, FERS disability benefits are payable after only 18 months of FERS service. Also, the Special Retirement Supplement is paid until age 62. It is not subject to the Social Security earnings test until the employee reaches the Minimum Retirement Age. However, technicians are not eligible for the 1.1 percent annuity formula under FERS, no matter how long they work or their age at retirement.
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