The government processed more federal retirement applications in June than it expected to, and the total claims backlog is down 21 percent since the beginning of the year, according to the latest statistics.
The backlog now stands at 48,323 claims, down 12,785 since January and 55 less than the total number of outstanding retirement claims in December 2011. The Office of Personnel Management, the agency responsible for processing retirement applications, completed 8,964 claims in June -- 464 more claims than it estimated it would process that month. OPM also received 186 fewer applications in June than it projected.
The agency has made slow but steady process in chipping away at a backlog that, until recently, it struggled to control. OPM reported a backlog of 49,473 retirement claims in May, a 19 percent decrease from January, when the pileup stood at 61,108 claims. Despite the progress, many federal retirees still wait several months for their applications to be fully processed and their entire annuity payments to kick in. On average, it takes 156 days to process a claim, but many retirees wait much longer than that for their full annuity payments.
The order in which applications are processed is a mystery to many retirees and outside observers. “I retired 2 July 2011 and I am still receiving interim checks,” said one Government Executive reader in response to a June story on the retirement backlog. “I have friends who retired in November and December  and they received their full checks in a two-month time period.”
Director John Berry and other OPM officials have partly blamed individual agencies for delays and other problems associated with processing retirement claims. Retirement information can be lost, incorrect or incomplete when it finally makes its way to OPM staffers, who then have the time-consuming task of filling in the holes and verifying data.
OPM administers benefits for 2.5 million federal retirees and processes about 100,000 new claims annually. Berry has said eliminating the backlog is his highest priority in 2012. Earlier this year, OPM unveiled a plan that aims to get rid of the claims backlog within 18 months and to reduce processing times so that 90 percent of claims are administered within two months of receipt.
Lawmakers asked OPM in February to report monthly on the status of the backlog. Many retirees have taken their concerns about the matter to their individual congressional representatives, who in turn have pressured OPM publicly and privately to fix the problem.
Processing retirement claims, particularly disability claims, can be complex, especially since OPM relies heavily on other federal agencies to provide retirees' information, including the amount of their annuity. The agency uses more than 500 procedures, laws and regulations to process retirement applications.