After months of struggling to cope with the number of federal employees filing retirement requests, the Office of Personnel Management made modest progress in reducing the backlog in September.
OPM reported last week that it had received 8,810 new retirement claims for the month, and it processed 9,107 requests. That marks the first month since June that the agency has processed more claims than it took in.
Overall, the backlog of requests dropped from 17,125 at the end of August to 16,828 last month. But the percentage of claims processed within 60 days dropped on a monthly basis from 70 percent in August to 65 percent last month.
» Get the best federal news and ideas delivered right to your inbox. Sign up here.
In August, OPM officials confirmed that President Trump’s hiring freeze at the beginning of 2017 hampered their ability to process retirement claims on a timely basis. But they said the agency’s retirement services office “mitigated the impact of staff shortages” with a number of process improvements.
Although the retirement backlog is often a sore topic for congressional watchdogs, OPM said retiring feds do not see the impact of a long waiting list. Recent retirees are placed in an “interim pay status” within five to seven days of OPM receiving their claims, and they receive an estimate of what their post-employment annuity will be, based on their final salary and length of service.
The agency is also working to make an impact in fighting the national opioid epidemic. In a joint memo last week from Acting OPM Director Kathleen McGettigan and Richard Baum, acting director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, officials highlighted information on opioid abuse, how to use pain medication safely, and ways employees can get help with addiction.
“More than 2.4 million Americans currently struggle with opioid addiction,” they wrote. “In 2015, more than 33,000 people died from drug overdoses involving opioids and crude data for the first three quarters of 2016 indicate that the drug overdose death rate is still increasing.”
In August, Trump described the opioid crisis as a “national emergency,” but as of Tuesday, the White House still has not issued a formal emergency declaration on the issue. In a fact sheet distributed to agencies, officials offered tips for the safe use and disposal of prescription drugs and highlighted available programs for feds who need help, like each agency’s free Employee Assistance Program.
“Services include employee education, supervisory training and short term counseling to help address personal or workplace issues stemming from substance abuse,” the report said. “When short term counseling is not enough, EAP can provide referrals for ongoing care.”
Meanwhile, the Environmental Protection Agency Inspector General found last month that EPA needs to improve its internal controls over the use of incentives to retain employees. A follow-up to a 2014 report that found that the agency did not maintain documentation of the required annual recertification of its use of incentives, the inspector general found that while EPA has made some improvements, it still does not monitor incentives as required.
“The agency did not perform monitoring reviews due to a misunderstanding of oversight responsibilities,” the report said. “The EPA’s new policy, drafted in 2014, has not been issued and is currently under review by agency officials.”
The inspector general said that the new policy should include quarterly reviews and performance ratings to properly monitor the use of retention incentives moving forward. Auditors also identified “irregular” payments to the tune of $1,605 to one employee, and urged officials to investigate those payments and, if necessary, end and recover the payments.
EPA officials agreed with the inspector general’s findings, and said they would implement quarterly reviews of retention incentives by the end of 2017. And officials said they would incorporate performance ratings in their review process by the end of 2018.