Tuesday , October 21, 2008
By George Russell
The United Nations, with a headquarters staff of approximately 15,500, is apparently relying on a battalion of retirees to fill important vacancies. The cost of keeping codgers on its payroll to do jobs that full-time employees apparently cannot handle has soared from $33 million in 2004-2005 to $50 million in 2006-2007.
In the process, the world organization appears to have been violating its own limits on how much retirees are allowed to earn after they take a U.N. pension, and how long they can be kept on the job. Those rules were seemingly designed to prevent double-dipping by former workers, or the filling of jobs that might otherwise go to full-time staff.
But one small group of pensioners — 135 people in all — appear to have done far, far better than anyone else in breaking through the post-retirement salary ceiling. That group, consisting of higher-level professional and administrative employees, and representing little more than 10 percent of the total number surveyed, pulled in $11.4 million, or more than 20 percent of the amount spent on the growing post-retirement work force, according to an internal U.N. study on the group.
This group earned much more on average than the $22,000 annual limit that the organization places on additional U.N. earnings of those already drawing a U.N. pension. About 130 people in the group averaged nearly $40,000 a year in post-retirement income, nearly twice the U.N. limit. Another group of five persons at the assistant secretary general level averaged more than $100,000 a year atop their pensions. (Staying on the job at this level post-retirement requires the direct approval of the Secretary General.)
The U.N. study, however, does not point out the rule violation.
U.N. rules, amended as recently as April 2006, emphasize the $22,000 annual limit of additional pay for pensioned workers, making exceptions only for language specialists. They also state that retired workers can only be hired back when a search fails to find an adequate replacement, and underline that even then, the hire should be short term.
Yet according to the study, currently under consideration by the U.N. General Assembly, the number of retirees called back into service — or asked not to leave it — has virtually doubled in the years 2006-2007, the most recently available for analysis (the U.N. works on a two-year budget cycle), to nearly 1,000, or about 6 percent of the total work force.
Only one-third of them fall into the category of hard-to-find translators and other language experts. Those skills are badly needed, apparently, to keep the U.N.'s schedule of conferences and meetings humming (roughly a quarter of all retirees, the largest single group, worked for the General Assembly and conference management departments of the U.N.).
But according to other U.N. documents obtained by FOX News, the existence of this entire group of retired-but-not-at-rest senior personnel may be the symptom of a deeper problem at the U.N.: a work force that is too old, but also gets to retire too early.
According to a report issued in late 2007 by the U.N.'s Joint Inspection Unit (JIU), a special group of experts tasked with improving organizational efficiency, the U.N. is facing a severe retirement crisis that is only now reaching its peak stage.
"In the current age structure of the UN system, staff members aged 50 years or over are dominant," the report says, adding that a "significant proportion of staff over 55." Translation: the number of retirements in the U.N. system is increasing "in the near future."
U.N. retirement is easily attained, and cushy. Staff hired before 1990 can retire at age 60; those hired after that must retire at 62. Many can retire at 55, with pension benefits after just 10 years' service, and with lifetime health and dental benefits for themselves and their families. By contrast, the JIU notes, other international organizations usually set mandatory retirement at 65.
Indeed, as FOX News revealed two weeks ago, the U.N. system is now agonizing over how to cope with a bill as high as $4.9 billion for the health care insurance liabilities of its current and future pensioners — a bill that the JIU report says flatly will get worse in the current retirement wave.
What to do about it? The JIU report is contradictory. On the one hand, it recommends that the U.N. start hiring younger people to counter a "stagnating" trend (only 12 percent of professional-level staffers at the U.N. are under 35).
And on the other, it suggests that older U.N. staffers need to stay at work longer, in part to retain institutional expertise, and also, perhaps, to ease the strain on the pension system.
Among other things, the report suggests that the U.N. retirement age be raised to 65, and in the meantime, the wage limits for post-retirement work also be raised.
It appears that in some cases the U.N. has already raised those limits, but without amending the rules that forbid it.
And if the JIU study is right, the life for retired double-dippers at the U.N. might well be getting better in the years ahead, even as the organization suffers through a severe financial crisis brought on by the demands on its pension system.