When companies are looking to reduce the size of their workforce, they sometimes try to entice workers to give up their jobs through buyout offers or early retirement incentives. At first glance, it might seem appealing to get a cash bonus or a year’s salary for not having to go to work. And buyouts generally seem more humane than mass layoffs. Still, you should consider early retirement offers very carefully before signing on the bottom line. Here are 10 things to take into account:
Consider the company’s financial health. Assess the likelihood that you'll be able to keep your job if you turn down the buyout offer. Linda Chisom, 64, a faculty assistant in Cambridge, Mass., is considering accepting an early retirement incentive package of one year’s salary and retiree health insurance until Medicare coverage kicks in at age 65. “You have to be 55 or over and have to have worked here for 10 years or more,” she says. “I’ve been here for 27 years.” Chisom originally wanted to retire at age 66, the year she can claim full Social Security benefits. “[But] there’s also the possibility of getting laid off in the future, which would mean you don’t get that one-year salary,” she says. “It feels like going to Las Vegas. You’re just not sure what the outcome is going to be no matter what you do.” If you are over 40, under the Older Workers Benefit Protection Act, you must be given 21 days to consider a severance offer. So take your time and think it over.
Calculate the financials. Compare the financial incentive being offered to benefits you would have received in retirement if you had stayed at your job. “Many employees who leave their jobs under company-sponsored early retirement plans discovered later that they don’t have enough income to support themselves very well,” cautions Jonathan Pond, a financial adviser and author of Safe Money in Tough Times: Everything You Need to Know to Survive the Financial Crisis. Many pension formulas are calculated based on the average of what you earned during your last few years on the job. A one-time bonus isn’t likely to be higher than working longer and having more higher earning years factored into your pension calculation.
Cover your expenses. When you retire, you need to have a plan for paying your expenses for 30 years or more into the future. Chisom says she would lean toward taking the buyout if she could reduce her monthly expenses by selling her house. But she's having trouble doing that right now. “I’m engaged and I’m hoping that my fiancé and I will be able to buy a house together once we sell our separate residences, and that would help defray some cost of living expenses if we bought a house together," she says. The bottom line: A buyout offer needs provide enough to cover your bills going into the future.
Make a counteroffer. If a buyout is offered because a business unit is being closed or an entire department is being eliminated, you may not have a lot of room to ask for a better severance package. But if the company offers an early retirement package to only a few people, there's more room for discussion about the terms. “I believe every aspect of a retirement package is at least potentially negotiable,” says Alan Sklover, an employment attorney in New York and author of Fired, Downsized, or Laid Off: What Your Employer Doesn't Want You to Know About How to Fight Back. “If you can, make a rational argument as to why the terms you would like them to change is in [your employer’s] interests.” For example, Sklover suggests that you offer to spend the next six months bringing in more clients or business in exchange for a larger payout. It can’t hurt to ask for a little bit more money or subsidized health benefits.
Find healthcare. Make sure that an early retirement incentive package provides health insurance if you are younger than age 65 and can’t yet qualify for Medicare. “Everyone over age 50 probably has at least one health condition that is going to prevent them for getting affordable [individual] coverage,” says Lita Epstein, author of Surviving a Layoff: A Week-by-Week Guide to Getting Your Life Back Together. Epstein, 56, pays $1,200 a month for her individual health insurance with a $3,000 deductible, due to arthritis and high blood pressure, she says. If your employer doesn’t offer health insurance, consider COBRA continuation coverage, which generally lasts for up to 18 months, and find out if you're eligible for coverage under a spouse’s health insurance plan.
Factor in Social Security benefits. Social Security payments are calculated based on an average of the 35 years in which you earned the most. Retiring early means losing out on having another higher earning year factored into the calculation. Plus, if you opt to collect before your full retirement age (66 for people born before 1960), your benefits are permanently reduced. Your future cost of living increases will also be lower because they are calculated from a lower initial benefit amount. If you delay claiming Social Security up until age 70, even if you are not working, you'll get higher payouts for the rest of your life.
Review what you are owed. Make sure you are getting all the money you are entitled to before signing a buyout agreement. “List out any money still due you in the way of bonus and commissions,” says Epstein. “Make sure you are going to get some compensation for unused sick and vacation time.”
Consider taxes. If Chisom accepts the buyout offer, she has to decide whether to take her payout as a lump sum or a monthly check. It’s a good idea to consult an accountant or financial adviser about how this income will affect your tax liability or your child's eligibility for college financial aid. Also, if you will need to tap your 401(k) and you are younger than age 55, you’ll have to pay a 10 percent early withdrawal penalty and income tax on any withdrawals. For IRAs the penalty lasts until age 59 ½.
Read the fine print. Carefully examine the contract you are signing and have an attorney look it over if you have any questions. Employees are often asked not to work for a competitor or solicit customers from the company. “If you are leaving to accept a severance when you could have remained employed, then you are going to forfeit your claim to unemployment in most states,” cautions Richard Busse, a partner at Portland, Ore., law firm Busse & Hunt and author of Fired, Laid Off or Forced Out: A Complete Guide to Severance, Benefits and Your Rights When You're Starting Over. You also may be asked to waive the right to sue the company for discrimination, commissions, or overtime.
Size up the job market. If you take the buyout and can find another job before the cash runs out, it’s found money. But if you need income and think you might have trouble finding another job with similar pay and benefits, it might be better to pass. “Even if you are able to get work before your severance runs out, it will typically be at such a diminished pay that it would be far better for you to retain your position if you can,” says Busse. “Typically, those offers are not going to be equal to the cost of losing your position in the long term. If you don’t have a job by the time the money runs out, it’s a bad deal.” Some workers use a buyout to transition into a part-time job or more enjoyable field of work. “This might very well represent a chance to bridge yourself into another occupation or circumstance,” says Sklover. But other employees don’t want to retrain for a new job so close to retirement age. “It would be hard to find a job with so many jobs lost,” says Chisom. “At this age I don’t want a new job.” Here are some career ideas that welcome older workers.