OPM Buyouts Could Threaten Progress on Retirement Claims Backlog

This story has been updated.

The Office of Personnel Management is offering buyouts and early retirement packages to hundreds of employees across the agency, according to a memorandum from Acting Director Elaine Kaplan.

OPM received approval to offer 299 buyouts and early outs to employees and will send individual emails to eligible workers on June 17, said Kaplan in the May 31 memo, obtained by Government Executive. OPM is using its flexibility to address a tight budget, Kaplan said, but the voluntary employee departures could have other consequences. The agency is offering 17 buyouts to employees in its retirement services division, the office responsible for processing retirement applications and clearing up the current backlog. The 17 buyouts are “limited to non-supervisory employees who are eligible for optional/regular retirement,” according to agency documents.

There are 955 employees in OPM’s retirement services division.

The claims backlog, which was around 30,000 at the end of April, has long been a thorn in OPM’s side. The agency has made sustained progress during the past year to reduce the backlog, despite a record number of new applications since January. But the possibility of buyouts in the retirement services division, and the reality of sequestration -- which forced the agency to ban overtime for retirement services employees and the office to reduce its call center hours -- means that momentum could slow through the summer and fall.

“The possibility of losing 17 people in the division that has already abolished overtime and cut back on call center hours will undoubtedly have a negative impact on the timely processing of retirement claims,” said Jessica Klement, legislative director at the National Active and Retired Federal Employees Association. “Already hindered by sequestration cuts, these buyouts will certainly reverse the progress OPM has made in reducing the backlog.”

Many federal retirees still wait several months, and sometimes years, for their applications to be fully and correctly processed. OPM administers benefits for 2.5 million federal retirees and processes about 100,000 new claims annually. “The VERA/VSIP offering is based on a comprehensive strategic workforce planning review,” said an OPM spokeswoman, in response to a question on the impact of buyouts on the retirement backlog. “This review enabled us to identify areas where we can create efficiencies and better align our talent toward delivering our mission. We have also identified caps/limits to the number of VSIPs that will be accepted from any particular occupation/work unit, so as to avoid an unmanageable number of departures.”

OPM’s human resource solutions organization is offering 129 buyouts and early outs to eligible employees, the most of any individual division within the agency. Other divisions offering the voluntary packages include:

  • Office of the Chief Financial Officer
  • Office of the Chief Information Officer
  • Congressional, Legislative and Intergovernmental Affairs
  • Communications and Public Liaison
  • Employee Services
  • Executive Secretariat and Ombudsman
  • EEO/Diversity and Inclusion
  • Facilities, Security and Contracting
  • Healthcare and Insurance
  • Merit System Accountability and Compliance
  • Office of the General Counsel
  • Planning and Policy Analysis

To be eligible for a Voluntary Early Retirement Authorization (early out), employees must have 20 years of service and be at least 50 years old, or have at least 25 years of service -- this applies to those covered under the Civil Service Retirement System or the Federal Employees Retirement System. Buyouts, or Voluntary Separation Incentive Payments, are cash incentives of up to $25,000 for employees and can be offered along with an early out.

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