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[Excerpt] Cost-of-living adjustments (COLAs) for the Civil Service Retirement System (CSRS) and the Federal Employees Retirement System (FERS) are based on the rate of inflation as measured by the Consumer Price Index for Urban Wage Earners and Clerical Workers (CPI-W). COLAs for both CSRS and FERS are determined by the average monthly CPI-W during the third quarter (July to September) of the current calendar year and the third quarter of the base year, which is the last previous year in which a COLA was applied. The “effective date” for COLAs is December, but they first appear in the benefits issued during the following January.

All CSRS retirees and survivors receive COLAs. Under FERS, however, nondisabled retirees under the age of 62 do not receive COLAs. Survivors and disabled retirees are eligible for COLAs under FERS regardless of age. CSRS pays a COLA that is equal to the percentage change in the CPI-W during the measurement period, but COLAs under FERS are limited if the rate of inflation is greater than 2.0%. If the rate of inflation during the measurement period is between 2.0% and 3.0%, the COLA under FERS is 2.0%. If inflation is greater than 3.0%, then the COLA for FERS benefits is equal to the CPI-W minus one percentage point.

Congress passed the first law requiring automatic COLAs for federal civil service retirement benefits in 1962, and it has adjusted either the formula by which they are calculated or the date on which they take effect more than ten times since then.

If consumer prices as measured by the CPI-W do not increase from the third quarter of the base year to the third quarter of the current calendar year, there is no COLA for annuities paid under CSRS or FERS. For example, from the third quarter of 2014 to the third quarter of 2015, the CPI- W fell by 0.4%. Therefore, no COLA was paid under either CSRS or FERS beginning January 2016.

From the third quarter of 2018 to the third quarter of 2019, the CPI-W increased by 1.6%. Therefore, beginning in January 2020, the CSRS COLA and the FERS COLA are both 1.6%.


Suggested Citation
Isaacs, K. P. (2020). Cost-of-living adjustments for federal civil service annuities (CRS Report 94-834). Washington, DC: Congressional Research Service.

An earlier version of this report can be found here: