strumzilla

​A blog/journal about my life and the stuff I like. Popular subjects include music, guitars, gear, books, movies, video games, technology, humor.

Filtering by Tag: VA

A Few Milestones

Today marks nine years since my retirement from the Army, and it’s been overwhelmingly positive in retrospect. I got a good job, moved back home, and have spent a significant amount of time furthering my development as a musician, songwriter, and producer. There have been ebbs and flows over these years, some times of drama, but mostly a nice steady arc to the days. We got a great house six years ago, and I’ve been enrolled at Berklee Online for the past several years. Aeyong has turned our yard and house into a natural conservatory of sorts, and we’ve got a beautiful green space that envelops our house and will only shelter us further with time. We lost Bridget to the inevitable march of time, but have since welcomed Skittles, our Chihuahua mix and resident spoiled princess of the brood.

I spent about five and half years working the regular grind as a federal employee, but about two and a half years ago I switched to “Fee Basis” which is somewhat equivalent to a contractor, but without the contract. I get paid directly for the work and there’s no ongoing agreement or contract that binds either the VA or myself. That being said, our clinic has had Fee Basis examiners the entire time I’ve been there and long before as far as I know. That switch is probably the single biggest improvement in quality of life I’ve ever experienced, even compared to my retirement from the Army. I went from working full time to working nine days a month and earning twice as much. This is largely predicated by my ability to perform a large number of exams and handle complex cases that the regular federales don’t like to bother with. It’s really been a perfect storm of an employment situation for me.

I’ve had significantly more time to work on my various passions, and I’ve added filmmaking, video editing, video effects, drawing, and writing to the multitude of musical disciplines that provide great fulfillment and purpose to my life. As part of the added boon of income, we’ve been paying our mortgage off at more than triple the required amount, and so we’re hopefully going to see it paid off in the next two years, about twenty two years ahead of schedule. There’s one big milestone that we need to pass, and that’s another salary waiver approval for Fee Basis employees. The VA has been allowing Fee Basis to earn double their normal authorized annual salaries due to shortages of personnel and it’s been a policy that’s required renewal every two years. This year marks the end of a two year period, so we just need one more approval. By all signs it should happen because the VA has been one of the departments that’s seen expansion under the last several administrations.

Once the house is paid off, I intend to keep working at about the same rate I do now, but being completely debt free will put us in a position where we could probably survive without me working at all. I like the extra security of financial surplus, not to mention discretionary income, so I imagine I’ll keep working indefinitely, albeit on the reduced schedule which will eventually decrease even further. A lot more has happened over the last nine years - we’ve both passed fifty and it’s receding below the horizon, we’ve attended a lot of great concerts, and taken a few small trips. We plan to travel more once the house is paid off, although we’re limited by our dogs and some health issues. It can also be argued we’re both home bodies who really enjoy living in our own little world.

File under short term milestone, I’ve quit practicing any musical instruments for the past month, trying to get this chronic elbow tendonitis to fade away. It’s been in the left elbow for almost two years, and the right elbow started acting up a few months ago. It’s just the cumulative effect of playing so many different instruments - guitar, bass, drums, keyboards. It got worse when I bought acoustic drums and had been working on my double stroke by repetitively practicing the stick bounce off the drum head. That shock is transferred directly to my lateral elbow and it really has taken its toll. The problem with the elbows is that we’re constantly using them, and even something as trivial as picking up a coffee cup or tearing a piece of paper can tweak the injury. I have seen some improvement in the symptoms, so I’m hoping to start gradually re-introducing some practice to my schedule starting next month.

One benefit of the extra time is that I rekindled my interest in drawing and writing (which have been gathering dust for years) and I’ve made some progress, although I have a long way to go. I look forward to combining all my various disciplines into great storytelling in the future.

The Edge of Summer

The sun has been shining, the grass is green, and summer is in the air. We're still in that magical window when it's nice to be outside for most of the day without fear of withering from the heat. The press of the last few months is just about to see its release. I've got a long weekend and then I take my board exam next Tuesday. I feel pretty confident about my readiness, but I'll still crack the books daily til Tuesday. 

The transition to fee basis at work has essentially completed and my schedule has normalized itself for the most part. It's really nice to have a three day workweek at the most. It's funny how quickly that became the norm for me. The default schedule should be three days for three weeks and then a week off. I'm working half as much and bringing home more than double my Federal pay (with consideration for no increase to my pension and no 401K matching).  It's really the perfect work scenario for me and my capabilities. I can complete exams more thoroughly and faster than any of the people I have worked with so far. I'm sure there are others like me out there, but we all have a fairly unique skill set that gives us distinct advantage over other examiners. Nearly thirty years of continual Federal service including the twenty three years of active duty has definitely paid off in my current job.

I haven't really been able to settle in and take advantage yet because the last few months were occupied with the end of the Berklee semester and then the beginning preparations for the board exam. Thankfully, the board schedule is transitioning to a ten year cycle after this.  My goal is that by the time I take the next board, we'll have paid off this house, built or bought our house in the country and I'll be well ensconced in my bespoken home studio.  That mostly depends on a steady state for my current work situation. I'm relatively confident that the C&P program in general won't go anywhere soon, and I'm mostly optimistic that the role of the examiner will stay the same as well. The prevalence of laziness, incompetence, and ambivalence in the Federal service actually plays to my advantage. There's no shortage of work for me, and this allows me to maximize my time/salary in a way that's really unmatched anywhere else in the job market that I know of. 

A busy two weeks

It's the Saturday after I completed my first two weeks as a fee basis (contractor) examiner for the VA in essentially the same job I was performing previously. I worked a total of seven days over two weeks and completed a record (for me) of 161 exams. This will result in a take home pay of about four times what I typically make. I don't necessarily think this workload will be typical, and I don't plan on working any more than three days a week going into the future as I was on the verge of burning myself out after four straight days of full speed ahead. I think it is feasible I could maintain an average of 60 a week with one week off a month for a monthly average of 180ish. Doing the math, this would put me right at the max salary for a year. I could earn more, but I'm pretty sure they wouldn't authorize any more.

At this rate, I think it's completely feasible to pay off the house in five years and move forward with our plan to have a home on 1-2 acres on the outskirts as well as getting my dedicated music studio built. This will largely depend on a continued steady supply of exams from work. The proposed presidential budget, as corrupt, lopsided, and tunnel visioned as it is, does allow for an increase in funding for the VA, so at least for the near future work should be plentiful. I'm hoping I may look back at this post some day in 5-10 years to confirm my projections were close. It's possible the timeline could be even shorter if they keep supplying me with exams. In the present environment, I'm not having any problems getting extra exams. I was even turning down a few every day last week because I was already swamped with 20+ exams each day. The lazy and ambivalent federalistas in my department are now a source of extra income for me, so as long as they stay around I should have no problem keeping my dance card full. 

Work related updates

Another infrequent update. I've been staying busy at work and school. I can't recall if I ever mentioned it before, but in the wake of a lot of upheaval in the VA system, not to mention crossing over the five year mark last August, I decided to request a change from a full time permanent position to fee basis (contract). This would see me forfeiting any additional deposits to my 401K as well as earning any more rate increase on my federal pension. I'm also technically forfeiting the other federal benefits (healthcare, dental, vision, paid leave) but those losses are negligible. I'm already eligible (and using) my retiree benefits for these and the loss of paid leave becomes irrelevant under the fee basis paradigm.  

What I gain from fee basis is getting paid for the amount of work I do, dictating what schedule I want to work (meaning I can work 5 days, 3 days, take a month off, etc.), and the ability to leave work as soon as I'm finished on any given day. The rate at which they pay (and considering how fast I work), means that if I maintain my current production levels I can realistically take home more money while working fewer days. Although I'll be forfeiting additional increase in my federal pension, it was never going to be a significant portion of my retirement and I will still be able to draw some money when I reach 62.  The 401k (TSP) may be eligible for transfer to another similar IRA type account. I will look into this in the future. Regardless, the cons are minor and the pros are great for this change. 

The decision to change was made in the wake of perceived sweeping changes in the VA (including an increased use of contractors) and the concerns about a new administration coming into power. I made the request in December and received fast and positive feedback from my direct supervisor. In this process, he has actually been the only real support and has moved things along at every step. It's still pending because of sitting in the Dallas VA mailroom for a month (literally) and then sitting on someone's desk in HR until my supervisor personally visited and got them to do their jobs. The complete lack of inertia among many employees in the VA is what gives us a bad name. There are people content to draw a paycheck and all the benefits and perform as little actual work as they can get away with. They act like they're doing you a personal favor just to listen to your request. 

All that being said, hopefully things are in the home stretch now and I can adopt a condensed schedule. My plan is to work Tue-Thu, but I'm requesting that they give me a dense schedule every day in the hopes I can maintain similar numbers. I'm hopeful I can nearly double my current take home pay, but that will be predicated by how much they offer in compensation and how high demand remains.