June 22, 2008

A Farewell, After Nearly 40 Years of Advocacy

In the early 1980s, when Congress moved to bring federal employees into Social Security, the outlook for the civil service pension system was uncertain. But Judy Park had a plan. Park was the legislative director for the National Active and Retired Federal Employees Association, or NARFE,

and, with the help of colleagues and a consulting firm, she spent two years building consensus among unions and employee associations on how to revamp federal retirement.

The effort helped develop the framework for what became the Federal Employees Retirement System, which provides today's retirees with Social Security benefits, a modest annuity and the opportunity to invest in the Thrift Savings Plan, a 401(k)-type program. NARFE's plan also preserved the fiscal stability of the old Civil Service Retirement System, a traditional pension program, for workers who wanted to stay with it.

Park retired from NARFE at the end of May, after nearly 40 years with the association. She joined the group in 1968, only four years out of college, and became NARFE's first legislative director in 1976, when the group decided it needed a legislative and lobbying department.

"It really hasn't been like being in the same job all the time, because the job, the organization, and the Congress has changed so much," she said in an interview.

"It has been a lot of fun. I have had great experiences and lots of opportunities to help see changes come about. I have met and worked with great people."

When Park joined NARFE, it had about 130,000 members. The membership has tripled since then, and the association, founded in 1921, keeps watch over issues that are important to employees and retirees, such as retirement benefits, cost-of-living adjustments and health care.

When it became clear that Congress was going to revamp federal retirement, NARFE also worked to ensure some degree of equity among employees, so that they would mostly contribute the same percentage of their pay toward retirement, regardless of whether they were in the Civil Service Retirement System or the newer Federal Employees Retirement System, Park said.

While at NARFE, Park pushed for broader eligibility rules for survivor benefits, fought to have the government pay a higher share of health insurance premiums for employees and won a regulatory change so that federal retirees, along with employees, could participate in the "open season" and change their medical coverage as their health needs evolved.

"The most important thing for today's federal workers and federal retirees to do is recognize that they have got to involve themselves in the next several years to protect the benefits they now have," Park said.

In the global economy, an increasing number of companies are cutting or eliminating retirement and health benefits to save money and to become more competitive, she said. These fiscal realities are "sifting down and will hit the public sector. And when it hits the public sector, it will hit the federal government first," she predicted.

If that happens, Park added, "then we're going to see benefits begin to disappear, I'm afraid."

Although she has made a career working on issues and legislation important to federal employees and retirees, Park worked only two years for Uncle Sam, at the old Civil Service Commission, and does not receive the retirement and health-care benefits she fought to create and preserve.

She recently had to purchase supplement coverage for her Medicare benefit, and the search for the insurance "drove me crazy," she said, laughing. "I can't imagine what it is like for those poor souls who are confused by the system, because I felt clueless."

Action urged on whistle-blower protection

A coalition of 112 organizations is urging House and Senate negotiators to move quickly to resolve differences over legislation that would strengthen the protections afforded federal employees who blow the whistle on waste, fraud and abuse.

The House approved a bill, 331-94, to broaden whistle-blower rights 15 months ago and the Senate approved its version on a voice vote in December. But the bills contain different provisions and advocates for whistle-blowers are concerned that election-year campaigns may cut short the time that Congress has to get a compromise version to the White House.

"We offer our support to expeditiously conclude the process of reconciling House and Senate passed versions of this vital good government legislation," the coalition said in a letter sent recently to members of the House and Senate who will put together a final bill.

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