Forced to Retire Early Due to a Medical Condition, This Federal Retiree Didn't Plunge into Poverty, Thanks to Social Security

Joanna Shapanus has been either working or volunteering all her life. She spent 18 years at the Social Security Administration in Washington state and 12 years at other jobs prior to that. Bilingual – she's fluent in Spanish – she worked as a service representative where she helped people determine eligibility to file for Social Security benefits, assisted claims representatives with overpayment issues, and worked with congressional offices on issues related to Social Security and identity theft, among other things.

Every day was different, and she loved it despite all the stress that came with it. She was also one of the most experienced service representatives in her field office whose expertise was recognized by her managers and contributed greatly to the agency and her community.

But in 2008, a severe heart condition forced her to retire. She’s now a volunteer at a local radio station, KBBF 89 FM, in Santa Rosa, California, to keep busy. You can’t blame her for wanting to be productive. After all, she volunteered with the Peace Corps in 1973 in Ecuador and helped found along with her Peace Corps co-workers the first kindergarten in the country in Yaruqui. That experience changed her life forever, and she’s been dedicating her life to making a difference ever since.

It’s been nine years since she last clocked in at her Social Security office, and her doctors still have to remind her to take it easy. She has recently recuperated from open-heart surgery after over a year and a half of rehab, and stress would wreak havoc on her health.

Having to retire early put a dent in her finances. But thanks to Social Security Disability Insurance benefits she had paid into for 30 years, she’s able to take care of herself. Combined with her federal medical retirement, she receives about $1,700 a month after taxes. It’s not a whole lot, but it allows her to live and continue to be a productive member of society.

Protect Social Security and Protect Federal Retirement

Not many people are aware that Social Security is part of the retirement package for most federal employees – those covered under the Federal Employees Retirement System. FERS has three components: Social Security, Basic Benefit Plan, and Thrift Savings Plan.

Federal employees under FERS contribute to Social Security just like other Americans who work, and they receive their monthly payments after they retire.

“If I hadn't paid into it, I wouldn’t have got Social Security disability payments,” said Joanna, who's now 69.

Federal employees also pay into their Basic Benefit Plan every month. All federal employees contributed 0.8% of their paycheck into the plan up until 2012. Starting in 2013, new hires contribute 3.1%, and new hires starting since 2014 pay in 4.4%. But there are bills pending in Congress that would eliminate pensions for all newly hired federal employees and cut current employees' pensions.

The Thrift Savings Plan is similar to a 401(K) any American worker can have through an employer. Employees like Joanna pay in while they are working and most are eligible for an employer match.

Retired but Very Much Engaged

Even though Joanna has retired, she’s still an active AFGE member who watches closely all the bills introduced so she can call her members of Congress to urge them to oppose legislation that would take away her and other people’s retirement or privatize Social Security.

“I have made numerous calls,” she said. “They know me really well.”

Joanna is part of AFGE Retirees, a group of AFGE members who have retired but stay connected to advocate for good jobs and secure retirement.

"Being a part of AFGE as a retiree keeps me in touch with the major issues facing most of our federal agencies and the public we serve," she added. "Most importantly, I care about what happens to my friends who are still working in various agencies and the impact that current pending legislation will have not only on them but on retirees like myself. Issues like privatizing Social Security or any other agency, we would lose funding and erode the core mission of what our agencies provide and threatens their very survival in enormous ways."

Joanna's also one of the 22 million federal employees who are victims of the Office of Personnel Management data breach. The breach impacted her life tremendously, and it has been overwhelming to deal with as she had to reach out to the banks, DMV, and others to let them know about the breach. Employees were given a 10-year data breach protection plan, but now she's afraid it would be taken away, which is all the more reason for her to stay engaged. 

You too can be a part of the movement that stands up for the issues that matter to us all. Join AFGE Retirees today and help protect Social Security, good jobs, and secure retirement.


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