Thursday, August 26, 2010

What a ride!!! - part One: History

Alright, welcome to August.  I know, I know ... "What happened?" you may ask. Well, I am just about to explain it ... to come clean, as it were.

I've been avoiding the blog, actually. It hasn't been about just 'not getting around to it';. I believe I could've carved out some time, I believe I could've prioritized things differently and I believe I simply have to accept that I just had a period of a few months where I had pretty much no interest whatsoever in sharing what was happening. It's been quite a ride, and Robin and I have been hanging on as best we can.

So, ... where to begin?  I suppose it would be best to begin at, well, the beginning (of this particulat chapter, anyway). If I had to pick a staring point I'd pin it at April, 2008. That's when Robin and I were told that we were being picked up as a 'package deal' at the Miami Center. There's a lot of news and history in previous writings about what that process involved, and tons of details about making the move down here ... well ..  there.
What I did NOT throw in the mix were details of an approaching life-event that would mean a great deal of change for our life plan. That life event is turning 56 years old.
It is a Public Law that entitles Air Traffic Controllers to a 'special' and 'early' retirement. This (like with  firefighters and some law enforcement people) is a deal struck by Congress due to the stress levels and the intensity of the jobs. It provides for a retirement as early as age 50 if you meet time-in-service requirements (20 years on the boards) or even earlier with 25 years on the boards. Coupled with that are two other 'clauses': 1) they don't hire anyone past their 31st birthday (37th in some jobs) and 2) they won't let you work the boards past 56 years of age.
As with any law there are caveats and exceptions, but by-in-large, that's the rules and the rules are the rules.
Now, as Robin and I considered our move to Florida, this upcoming 'age barrier' was discussed in detail with the receiving management at Miami. I was told by more than one manager that it would not be a problem since Miami Center had been designated as 'critically staffed' and that there was a 'waiver' to be had to go past the age-56 requirement. As a matter of fact, there were several people over the age of 56 being retained to keep the facility staffing levels survivable.
"OK", we said, "that's covered". We proceeded to sell off things, buy the fifth-wheel and put houses on the market.  We arrived in our new jobs and new city at the end of October, 2008.
The year of 2008 proceeded and expired, and 2009 took over. All things pointed toward staying in Miami for about 4 years in order to accomplish the goals of finishing Robin's "covered time" requirement (that 20 years-on-the-boards thing mentioned above) and attaining the financial freedom we sought by selling the properties we left behind in Colorado. Those properties are not yet sold and apparently WON'T sell for a while unless a seriously better economic upturn occurs. When we left Colorado, it was right at the biginning of the crash .. er, downturn .. umm ... recession ... .  Whatever you want to call it, property values took a nose dive and so did our retirement accounts. So, it became all that more fiscally prudent to stay on board with our jobs until at least the end of 2012 in order to set up or sailing dream in a not-so-stressful style.
Then came December 2009 ...
In a huge gathering of FAA managers in Atlanta (one that the media had a field day with; calling it a 'Christmas Party') we were trained on the new Collective Bargaining Agreement between managers and the Controller's Union. During that session, we were also told that Congress was looking hard at the number of Air Traffic Controllers being retained on Post Age-56 waivers and that they (the waivers) would be harder to come by in the future.  Having already completed my request for one of those waivers, I became concerned that they could turn around the situation as I'd had it explained so I began regular meetings with my managers to assess the status of the waiver request. I kept getting good feedback that it was likely that I'd be retained, at least for one more year, because our supervisory complement was pretty tight and because we were trying to split off a new area of operations thereby requiring a bolstering of supervisory staffing. So... I was moderately confident that the staff and management at Miami were doing everything they could to retain me in my supervisory capacity.
You see, the situation is simply that if I hit the age-56 limit, I will no longer be able to work in a position that involves ~or directly supervises~ Air Traffic Control. It means that if I want to stay employed with the F.A.A. past 56 I must find a position that is 'Administrative' in nature and basically hang up my headset ... or be granted that waiver. To find these 'administrative' positions, I would need to seek out and bid on jobs either in a "support" or 'management' capacity (to be clear, I am a "Front Line Manager" but that is different than most 'management' duties).
In March, after much deep and hearftelt discussion with Robin, I began the process of looking for a new job just in case the waiver should not come through. Each application invloves some 20 pages of forms and narratives. This took several hours to put together in most cases, because each job application requires you to fill out a series of essay-type questions called "KSAs" (Knowledge, Skill and Abilities). These KSAs are necessarily tailored to the position you are seeking, so it requires a pretty thorough re-write of your resume with each application. While some of the applicaions go out with a 'standard' set of KSAs, some go out having answered very diverse and in-depth quesitioning. Kind of like an interview on paper.

The days went by, I got no news. March and April passed and I kept putting out bids. May, then June happened ... I kept throwing out bids for jobs, I kept visiting with my bosses who kept letting me know that no one knew anything one way or the other yet. (I might throw in that there were a couple of changes of leadership at the facility during this time frame, so there was little continuity in the process).
By the end of June I had placed 24 bids for jobs out into the ether that is the FAA Human Resources / Workforce Planning world. I applied for staff specialist positions, staff manager positions, operations manager positions and even facility manager positions at smaller towers (ones that didn't require previous second-level management experience (which is precisely what I was now trying to find)). I put out bids that spanned the country from Anchorage to Puerto Rico. And I heard nothing ...
On June 30th I received paperwork, initiated in April, which finally provided the answer on the waiver. It had been denied at all levels, clear up to the administrator and down to the Miami facility manager. Now to be fair, they (the top-level FAA managers, as directed by some aviation sub-commitee) are doing away with these waivers agency wide. I imagine that there will be precious few left in 6 more months and just about everyone who was on a waiver will be gone, or working elsewhere. I only wish I'd've been informed with a little more than 30 days' notice.
Now, I know there are a ton of people that could only dream of getting a whole 30 days' notice when they got laid off, but trying to find another job within the agency, or within the government, takes a long, long time. Six weeks to six months is not unreasonable to get the wheels to move because there are so many layers to process through. It was looking like the end of July would be "it" for my time with the FAA. I began looking for jobs outside the FAA and outside the government.
So .. you ask; "why didn't you just retire?" Ahhh ... another story, so ... OK .. I'll tell you.

In the big scheme of things, the air traffic controller gets a pretty nice retirement package. My package will come with a reduction as was agreed upon during a previous divorce settlement so I was kind of hoping to stay on board for a couple more years for financial reasons. The savings plan took a huge hit (along with most folks' IRA accounts) and it has yet to recover (not even close). The properties in Colorado and New York still  haven't sold, although it appears that their values have at least bottomed out and aren't sinking for now. We've had very limited success with renting the properties, as it seems it costs more to rent the property out (with the tax penalties, sporadic cash flow and repairs after the fact) than it does to just pay the mortgages dead loss. We'd like to sell them outright, but since the big housing cash they are not worth much, if anything, over the loan obligations. It's a tough situation, and Robin and I are both so very thankful to be blessed with an income that can stand that kind of stress and still let us survive and even play a bit. That would suddenly evaporate with a pay cut that would effectively be around 70% (ugh).
I never wanted to be a slave to the job because of money, (and I never have been because I genuinely like my job) but it would indeed put a lot of hardship on us both if I were to lose my income and have to retire right away.  There is also an issue of accrued leave.... another little sore spot in this project.

I've been with the FAA for alost 26 years. I never have played games with my annual or sick leave benefits and that leaves with a goodly amount of accrued sick time available should I need it. I feel as though it's one of the best insurance policies you can own, because after this much time on the job I would be afforded some 5 months of full pay should I become really, really sick, or injured or disabled. I didn't have to pay anything for this insurance, I just came to work faithfully and let the benefit build up at 2 hours a week. In a perfect world, I won't ever need to use it. In a perfect world it would hold some value toward a cash-out at retirement or as a credit toward my time-in-service. But, it's not a perfect world ,,, it FERS (Federal Employees Retirement System).
Up until a year or so ago, the sick leave accrued was worth nothing; nada, sip, silch. If one retired, it just vanished whether it was twelve hours or twelve-hundred. Now this represents a very serious dilemma on two fronts: First, the government is facing a problem with some, if not most, employees burning of their sick leave at the end of their careers. They are carrying positions for them, going shorthanded without them, and paying a salary for a terminally absent employee. Second (and personal), is about that exact ethic. I don't really believe in taking sick leave if you're not sick (I know, there's a whole new debate someday), and mean too sick to function effectively. But this situation is about a dead loss of thousands and thousands of revenue dollars. Time that I would get paid for if I took, or that will just be sacrificed if it is still on the books at retirement.

Well, last year (ish) they (congress) enacted a modification that allows 40% of ones accrued sick leave to be used as creditale service. That means something like; if I have this 5 months of sick leave on the books and I retire with 25 years of service, the my service time will be increased to 25 years and 2 months (40% of 5 months).  That's better, but it still means 3 months worth of leave evaporates.  More ugh-ishness. the year 2014 the credit goes to 100%, meaning that if I were to stay aboard until then I would recive 5 months for 5 months.  Fair enough, but farther away than I wanted ... but I'd do it, Robin would do it and we would have to push our sailing date back by about 16 months or so. Not too tough a price to pay for the benefit, and it seems it may be necessary anyway given the housing market.

All that being said, it's only one reason that retiring from the F.A.A. was extremely unpalatable just yet. Another big piece was a provision in the divorce agreement from my previous marriage that stipulated maintenance and retirement benefits and timelines and all. I can't grieve that, as I signed up for it, but I sure never figured that the FAA wouldn't keep me, or that I wouldn't have been moved to another position, or something, by now. The provisions contained in that decree were about to become very, very challenging if I couldn't stay in a pay status within the current retirement plan.  All the more incentive to keep cranking paper and putting out those job applications. It got frustrating, and it was disheartening to watch the days and weeks click down with no responses or successes. I fought with the desire to bag it, to just call it good and let it fall where it may (who needs a credit score anyway?) but I kept on cranking out the paper and going through ink cartridges in the process. I fased them, emailed them, express mailed them and hand carried one. I flew to Puerto Rico to 'visit' (not interview) the managers and talk to the controllers. That opening eventually got cancelled due to funding issues. A few other openings were either filled, closed, or are still in process to this day. Like I said, it's a slow process.

On June 30th I received a phone call from Washington D.C. asking to set up a phone interview. I asked back if I could do the interview in person and it was set up for one week later. I bought the airfare and arrived a day early in order to find my way to the office (not where I assumed it was .. and thanks for the directions, coaching and ultimate on-foot rescue, Glenda!). My intention was to come to Washington DC, interview and then go to the Headquarted building and try to cold-call as many managers as would see me to try to find anything at all. I also had arranged (thanks, Jeff) to meet with a manager from a private contractor for an impromptu visit about the possibilities of a job outside of the FAA should I be unsuccessful. It was a very nice lunch (again, after I eventually found the place) and it sounds like a great company doing cutting edge work .. in other words, fun :). 
I caught a cold.
Stopping by the drug store on your way to an interview is not the best practice I can think of. Maybe it was just all the stress, or maybe the hotel room, or maybe some germ on an airplane but I was pretty sneezy and didn't exactly want to make that impresison at the meeting so I got some minor league drugs and the interview went well. As a matter of fact, by the time it was over I was genuinely (and I mean deeply) excited and interested in this particular job opening. Notwithstanding the need to stay employed, this particular job was one I'd've been very interested in anyway. I walked out of the interview with hopes based on both aspects. First, I wanted a job and second, I wanted this one. That happened on July 8th.
I had to be hired soon or I would be gone on July 31st. Usually takes around 8 weeks to process a hire/transfer scenario. Hmmm... oh well, no worries.

During the next week I received one more call for an interview, this one for a position in Atlanta, GA. I asked about flying there to interview in person and was denied, because the people conducting the interview would be a panel of managers from three different states on a telcon. I set up the appointment for July 21st knowing full well, that there was no way that I could get the nod (if I were even the successful bidder) in time to avoid separating from service, but hoping nonetheless that perhaps I could be selected and then be reinstated (I didn't know how that might work, and it presented expecially difficult questions in the divorce-decree-retirement-entitlement section of this project). "Wait and see", I kept telling myself, "God's got this one under control, not me". I tried to be patient.

On July 18th, the final pay-period (2 weeks at a crack) of my career began. The next day (Monday 7/19) I decided I would call Washington D.C. just to ask if a selection had been made. I spoke to the manager that had the position open and explained what kind of wall I was up against (I did not play that up during the interview; bad form in my opinion). He was very gracious, and even violated a bit of protocol (it is customary to notify all those not selected before notifying the selectee) to let me know that I was the successful bidder and that my name had been 'flagged' and sent up to the first level of H.R. We talked a boit about what might be done to 'expedite' the process, but was honestly not thinking that it could get done in such a short time.

During the next 7 business days I contacted 11 different Personnel, Human Resources, and workforce planning specialists and their supervisors. Without exception, each one of them (in Miami, Atlanta, New JErsey, and Washington DC) were cordial, patient with my explanation, and hopeful-yet-cautious in their advice and responses. The week progressed and by Friday I had no further indication except that I was confident I had talked to just about every one in the chain.

Monday the 26th... I placed a couple more calls, and contacted a couple more key players. I started getting feedback that with 4 days left it would be pretty amazing if it could be done. It was a change of jobs, a change of pay status, a change of pay centers and a change of location. There were people that had to create and authorize the actual position, fund the job, and so on, along with getting the actual payroll programming done, get a job offer to me, get it returned and plugged in to the system and get the managers to approve it all. I understand why it takes months...

On Thursday I got an email from yet another player. One I didn;t know about, and one that was asking about retirement papers. My heart sunk as I thought about this added layer that was put in the mix so late, but Robin took the opposite tack and was encouraged that this meant people were actively pursuing it.
I exchanged emails, and was asking about whether it could all work. I received the response "it will work, Mr. Wells" at about 2:30 Thursday, I received a firm offer at 4:20 P.M. Thursday and signed it, scanned it, and faxed it back immediately.
Friday was a good day! The pay period ended Saturday, but not my career.

Now; I can tell you that the Government moves slowly, and I understand why, but I can also tell you that it can get things done! There are compassionate, caring people out there that know their jobs and do them well.  I had lots of high hopes, but very guarded ones. I didn't realize what effort was being put into my 'case' until I got that offer, probably an hour and a half past the time the specialist whould've been at home. It was so exciting!

Please bear with me here. There are special people, most of whom I've met now, that I'd like to thank.

Theresa Goosby, Richelle Green, Colette Jones, Cyrus Tribue, Mark Marchese, Pat Omata, Michelle Wright, Frank Toner, Jim Trinka and Marylin Ragland. These are all people who helped. Not in any order because I don't really know the scope of everyone's jobs, but to these and most likely others I owe a HUGE debt of gratitude because they made it happen. I am still an FAA employee, and I have a great new job.

I appreciate that.