Who is considered a federal “law enforcement officer” for purposes of retirement benefits? The term “law enforcement officer” is defined in Title 5 as follows: an employee, whose duties “are primarily 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.” The law states further that “law enforcement officers’ jobs are “sufficiently rigorous that employment opportunities should be limited to young and physically vigorous individuals…” Today, many but not all federal police officers are covered under this definition, including the Capitol Police, FBI, Park Police, Secret Service Officers, and supervisory CBP Officers, but not CBP Officers themselves.
In addition, Members of Congress, federal air traffic controllers, and federal firefighters also enjoy the same retirement system rules as LEOs.
Applying the LEO criteria to CBP Officers, whose duties at airports, seaports, and land crossings focus upon the “investigation, apprehension, and/or detention of individuals suspected or convicted of offenses against the criminal laws of the United States” should guarantee them full law enforcement status for purposes of retirement benefits. Indeed, these very duties were used as the rationale for the establishment of a new personnel system in the Department of Homeland Security, when their unique law enforcement and investigatory responsibilities were described as being so crucial to the nation’s security as to justify restrictions on their union activities.
In 2003, according to CBP’s own statistics, CBP Officers “inspected” 264 million aliens, and removed or referred to the courts more than 58,000 aliens. CBP Officers intercepted 73,000 fraudulent documents and found out almost 14,000 false claims of US citizenship. CBP Officers apprehended 584 stowaways, and intercepted 17,600 criminal aliens. And they found 483 “terrorist/security” violators and prevented their entry into the US. It is impossible to say they were not performing as law enforcement officers.
In a 2004 Report to Congress, the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) argued that CBP officers were more focused on “preventing” criminal activity than they were investigating, apprehending, and detaining for criminal activity. They saw this as justification for denying CBP Officers full LEO status. Since when is preventing criminal activity less important to law enforcement than investigating crime after the fact? CBP officers both prevent criminal activity and apprehend, detain, and investigate those suspected of criminal activity, and as such, deserve recognition as LEOs.
Currently, CBP Officers are treated like all other federal employees with regard to their retirement benefits, rather than like other federal law enforcement officers. If they were recognized as LEOs, they would be eligible for retirement benefits much sooner and would have their annuities calculated according to a much more generous formula.
Law enforcement officers are eligible for full retirement benefits at age 50 with 20 years of covered service, and at any age after 25 years of service, and only 20 of those years need to be in a covered position. Thus, a law enforcement officer who began employment at age 21 and worked in covered employment for 20 years until he/she turned 41 needs only to work for the federal government in any position for an additional 5 years to be able to retire with a full, unreduced annuity at age 46. All years worked are covered under the special, more generous formula used to compute law enforcement annuities. Thus, even though the retiring 46 year old may have only worked for 20 of his/her 25 years in covered employment, his/her annuity would be calculated as if the entire career were spent in law enforcement. Indeed, during all years of retirement, they continue to accrue benefits under a more generous formula than that of CBP Officers who work under regular FERS rules.
Although federal law enforcement officers and firefighters are eligible for full retirement benefits at earlier ages and under more favorable terms than federal employees under regular FERS rules, there are some restrictions that apply only to them. First is that they are required by law to retire no later than age 57 from a covered position. However if someone in a covered position has not met his/her 20 year covered service requirement before the mandatory retirement age of 57, the officer is permitted to keep his/her job until the last day of the month s/he finishes 20 years. This exception is allowed to go on with the permission of the agency head until the worker reaches age 60 which is the absolute mandatory retirement age for law enforcement officers, whether or not they have reached 20 years of covered service. Further, those who are covered by the law enforcement retirement rules are required to contribute an additional 0.5% of their salary to the fund that finances federal retiree annuities, for a total of 7.5% of pay in contrast to the 7.0% required of those under regular FERS rules. The increased benefits, however, outweigh these increased contributions.
Federal law enforcement officers are eligible to continue to participate in the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program (FEHBP) and the Federal Employees Group Life Insurance (FEGLI) once they retire on an immediate annuity as long as they have been enrolled in the five years prior to retirement. In contrast, regular FERS employees are not eligible for continued FEHBP or FEGLI coverage after early retirement unless the retirement was a result of a downsizing, RIF, or offered in some other context under Voluntary Early Retirement Authority (VERA).
Annuities for federal law enforcement officers and firefighters are calculated according to a substantially more generous formula than that used for regular FERS employees. For LEOs who retire at age 50 with 20 years of service, the formula is 1.7 % of the worker’s average “high three” salaries multiplied by 20 years of covered service. This amount is added to 1% of the “high three” average amount multiplied by all years of service beyond the required 20 years.
In addition, federal law enforcement officers and firefighters under FERS receive a “special retirement supplement” (SRS), sometimes referred to as either a “FERS annuity supplement” or a “retiree annuity supplement,” if they retire when they are under age 62. This SRS gives them approximately what they would have gotten from Social Security if they had retired at an age when they were eligible for Social Security retirement benefits. The SRS is adjusted annually to take into account price changes the same way that Social Security benefits are adjusted.
As an added benefit available only to those who retire under the special law enforcement rules, those who receive the SRS escape all the current Social Security earnings limitations. Unlike actual Social Security beneficiaries, those who receive SRS can earn any amount from outside employment without having their SRS reduced at all. Actual Social Security recipients have their post-retirement benefits reduced if they earn above certain amounts after retirement. Once the retiree reaches his/her minimum retirement age for Social Security, however, the Social Security earnings limitations do begin to apply
AFGE is the largest federal employee union, and there is strength in numbers. Our union represents tens of thousands of federal law enforcement officers and federal fighters throughout the government. AFGE represents federal border patrol officers at DHS and federal firefighters in both the Department of Defense and Department of the Interior. Together we will win full law enforcement status for CBP Officers.