Don’t wait til ‘later’ to plan for retirement

| September 18, 2015 | 0 Comments


Jennifer Stride
Army News Service

(Editor’s note: This article is presented here in its entirety; it is being run in two parts in the newsstand version.)

Few things strike more terror in the hearts of Army civilians than thoughts of retirement – forced or otherwise – because no matter how carefully one has planned, the question always remains: Will I be able to live comfortably on the amount I’ve put aside?

Seeking answers from the Army Benefits Center-Civilian can seem daunting, too.

“Retirement is a life-changing event,” said Robyn Mabry, chief of the Retirement Benefits Branch of the Army Benefits Center-Civilian at Fort Riley, Kansas. “We understand that people get nervous and get scared. “We need to make it as pleasurable of an experience as we can.”

The best way to do that, Mabry said during a recent retirement seminar, is for retirement counselors to meet clients face to face, even though the ABC-C does offer online and telephone support for those seeking information. During the seminar, she offered just that opportunity, becoming what she called “the ‘human’ part of ‘human resources.'”

Mabry offered information on annuity supplements and computation, sick leave and health benefits, minimum retirement ages, savings and spending accounts, and reductions, deductions and beneficiaries.

She stressed that it was important not to wait until retirement was close at hand, saying the best time to plan is long before eligibility.

“We don’t want you to wait to go to ABC-C until you are five years from retirement,” she said. “There are many things on (the ABC-C website and other sources), including new employee orientation online.”

Photo by Jennifer Stride, Fort Jackson Leader  Robyn Mabry of the Army Benefits Center-Civilian discusses retirement benefits with Rufus Barnes, a management-support specialist with the 165th Infantry Brigade on Fort Jackson.

Robyn Mabry of the Army Benefits Center-Civilian discusses retirement benefits with Rufus Barnes, a management-support specialist with the 165th Infantry Brigade on Fort Jackson.

During the past year, she said, ABC-C has helped nearly 11,000 Army civilians through the retirement process.

“I started at ABC-C as a phone counselor, as a GS-5, and I’ve been doing this for 12 years now,” she said. “We’re patient. We take the time to answer all of your questions because, true enough, we have a lot of work to do, but it’s more important to make sure you walk away with a good feeling about your retirement.”

After 12 years in the retirement system, Mabry now is a GS-13.


How ABC-C works

Most people who contact the ABC-C want to know when they can retire and how much they’ll receive in retirement benefits.

Mabry manages a 20-person team, 12 of whom process requests for retirement estimates. It normally takes more than an hour to work one up one estimate, she said.

Lately, the demand for information has been particularly heavy. Many Army civilians worry that they will be forced into retirement by looming reductions in force. During the past couple of months, she said, the team has worked overtime to whittle a backlog of 3,000 cases down to 1,800.

When a client calls the ABC-C during working hours, he or she will be connected to a real person, not an answering system. Most calls last nine to 12 minutes, or more, and generate a typed synopsis to be filed with the Benefits Automated Tracking System. That way, every communication with a customer will be available during subsequent contacts.

“We will go through your estimate with you on the phone, once we send it to you and answer any questions,” she said. “When you’re ready, and if you need help, we’ll go line by line to help you fill out your retirement application, or you can call anytime and just say you got a paper in the mail and ask what to do with it.”

The federal Office of Personnel Manage grades ABC-C documents monthly on such things as service and timeliness. OPM grades all federal entities, allowing the ABC-C to see how its efficiency compares to that of other agencies.

Because getting a new benefits counselor up to speed takes about two years, it’s important that counselors be well trained, be personable and remain with ABC-C.

“That’s the way it has to be,” she said. “You have to build those relationships. (You) have to keep it at a personal level because we’re human resource managers.

“That’s what we do: We manage the human portion of it, and we must take care of the civilian workforce because it is our most valuable resource.”

The human touch

Four years ago, nearly 40 percent of the civilian workforce — Baby Boomers all — was eligible for retirement.

That percentage has declined since because of the number of young people entering the workforce.

To provide services to as wide an audience as possible, the ABC-C offers online retirement seminars twice a month.

It takes three benefit counselors two to three hours to brief online.

The ABC-C also is trying to develop an online presence that will answer frequently asked questions. Representatives also travel the country, offering two-day seminars like the one they held on Fort Jackson Aug. 11 and 12. More than 70 people within five years of retirement attended the sessions.

Some people just want face-to-face interaction, Mabry said — not online or telephone consultations.

“I’ve seen people that were terrified and didn’t trust computers who waited for face-to-face meetings to make decisions to retire,” Mabry said. “When it comes to something important like retirement, you can’t eliminate the human touch, or it could paralyze them.”

Rufus Barnes, a management support specialist with the 165th Infantry Brigade, attended the seminar, wondering how reductions in force might affect those pondering retirement.

“The seminar (helped) prepare me for leaving the federal service within the next three to four years,” he said. “I found out that my military deposit time was not all credited.”

Barnes spoke to Mabry. After she called ABC-C, Mabry was able to verify that only three of Barnes’s seven years of military deposits had been credited. She then advised him on how to correct the situation.

“She is very knowledgeable and has the passion — not just for the employee but for the Families, as well,” Barnes said of Mabry.

Retired Army Staff Sgt. Leon Dugar, now a civilian with the logistics office of the 165th Infantry Brigade, attended the seminar as well. Afterward, he received a phone call from ABC-C to work on his case.

“This was very informative and told me what my exact benefits are,” Dugar said. “She is one of the subject matter experts in that area, and I’m impressed by her being here.”

Dugar plans to retire at the end of September — his second retirement.

“There was a lot of stuff that I didn’t know, so it enlightened me a lot,” he said of the seminar. “Now that I have been to this, my hesitation to retire is gone, and the information I learned will make the transition easier.”

(Editor’s note: Jennifer Stride works for the Fort Jackson “Leader” newspaper in South Carolina.)


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Category: Army News Service, News

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