Officials at the Office of Personnel Management attributed a slowdown in the processing of federal employees’ retirement claims to the hiring freeze that ran from January until March.
Last month, OPM saw an uptick in the number of retirement claims—10,070, up from 6,141 in June. And although previous years have seen similar increases in July, the new claims brought the backlog of pending requests up to 17,091, an 18 percent increase over the previous month. A backlog of 13,000 claims is considered “stable.”
Before last month’s spike, OPM had been making progress on its inventory of pending retirement requests, with the number steadily decreasing since February. But the percentage of claims processed within 60 days since the beginning of fiscal 2017 lagged far behind the rate in previous years. Last month, only 55 percent of claims filed since last October had been processed within two months, compared to 79 percent a year ago.
An OPM spokesperson said Tuesday that one factor in the slowdown this year was the hiring freeze that ran from shortly after President Trump’s inauguration until May.
“The hiring freeze did impact the percentage of claims processed within 60 days,” they said. “Retirement Services has mitigated the impact of staff shortages in the retirement claims process by implementing process improvements and working with agencies to improve the quality and timeliness of their submissions.”
OPM said there are procedures in place to ensure that retiring feds don’t bear the brunt of the government’s HR department being swamped with requests. Retirees are placed in an “interim pay status” within five to seven days of OPM receiving their claims.
From then until when the claim is fully processed, the retiree will receive an estimate of what their post-employment annuity will be, based on their final salary and length of service. Generally, the formula yields about 80 percent of a person’s final retirement pay.
Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., called the lag "unacceptable" and tied it to a lack of leadership at the agency. Last week, Trump's nominee for director of OPM, George Nesterczuk, withdrew his name from consideration citing the "remote" possibility that he would be confirmed.
"It is troubling that the percentage of retirement claims processed within 60 days is trending in the wrong direction compared to last year," Connolly said. "Continued backlogs are unacceptable. This issue needs the attention of OPM leadership and highlights the importance of having a Senate confirmed director and deputy director in place to help address this problem."
OPM’s handling of federal employees’ retirement claims has come under scrutiny from both parties in Congress. Last fall, lawmakers on the House Oversight Committee requested a study by the Government Accountability Office on how OPM and human resources offices at other agencies can accelerate retirement processing. GAO has not yet released its findings.
In 2012, the backlog of retirement claims hit 60,000. OPM attempted to eliminate the backlog by the summer of 2013, but it scaled back its efforts in light of sequestration.
As federal agencies work to comply with orders from the Office of Management and Budget to restructure their workforces, and with several agencies already signaling that they will offer buyouts and early retirement, OPM said it has some tools to address retirement surges when they come up.
“RS has the authority and flexibility to address workload spikes, including the ability to move qualified employees to areas of greatest need,” OPM said. “However, our ability to maintain desired processing times will depend upon the extent of the increase in the number of cases received.”
They also noted that some claims simply take longer than others, because they involve “more complicated situations that may require additional information” from an agency or employee.