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Processing Problems

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Last week, a group of senators held a hearing on the ongoing issue of federal retirement processing delays. Here’s what I learned in watching the hearing:

  • The current average wait for a retirement application to be processed is more than five months. Some cases linger for more than a year before being finalized.
  • The Office of Personnel Management is still using the COBOL programming language for some of its processing applications. While the language has been updated over the years, it’s generally seen as out-of-date.
  • Twenty percent of the new retirement claims OPM receives are missing records, so they can’t be processed when they arrive at the agency.
  • Eleven percent of claims arrive at OPM more than 30 days after the employee has retired. This means the delays are not completely the fault of OPM, at least initially. Some agencies have a better track record on this than others.
  • According to OPM Director John Berry’s testimony, the agency has seen a 20 percent improvement in claims processing productivity over the previous year. But OPM received 21,000 new retirement claims in January, and the backlog of cases waiting processing is now at 62,000.
  • OPM has hired 30 new legal administrative assistants (often referred to as “claims examiners”)  and plans to hire about 30 more. But it takes three months of training before they can begin to work on real cases, and more than a year before they can independently handle processing most types of retirement claims.
  • A few years ago, OPM downsized the ranks of claims examiners in anticipation of an automated system that has since failed. The agency invited retired claims examiners to come back to work and 30 of them took OPM up on the offer.
  • OPM made $600 million in payments between 2006 and 2010 to deceased annuitants, and has since recouped $487 million. That leaves $103 million left to collect.
  • New retirement claims are being put through triage when they arrive at OPM so the highest priority cases (disability claims and claims of employees who have serious or terminal illnesses) are processed first.
  • Based on all the testimony at the hearing, I think OPM is acutely aware of the mistakes it has made and is trying to come up with a plan to improve its operations. But the agency has a long way to go to upgrade antiquated processes based largely on pen-and-paper applications and documentation.

From my perspective, part of the problem is it’s difficult for one person to know all the intricacies of each employee’s career history and how they could affect the calculation of retirement benefits. The best source available for providing accurate information to federal employees regarding their retirement eligibility and computation of their benefits is the CSRS and FERS Handbook for Personnel and Payroll Offices. To my knowledge, the April 1998 version is the most recent available. It’s due for a major revision.

What to Do?

In the course of testimony at the hearing, several recommendations surfaced about what individual employees and agency human resources offices can do to make the retirement process run more smoothly. Here are some of the suggestions:

  • Employees should maintain all employment records that document their federal career. That way, if a record is missing, lost, misplaced, shredded, burned or otherwise destroyed, they can provide a copy. If the records are stored electronically, then employees should maintain an electronic copy of their personnel file.
  • Employees should take the time to review the personnel folder maintained by the agency, to make sure it documents all their service.
  • Agencies should provide the opportunity for employees to attend at least one preretirement seminar to educate them on retirement benefits and financial planning issues.
  • Employees should request and agencies should provide a retirement estimate at least a year prior to retirement. I think the first estimate should be provided at least five years before retirement eligibility.
  • Agencies should offer retirement counseling -- an over-the-phone or in-person meeting to review an employee’s service history and retirement application for completeness.
  • If an agency is all caught up with providing estimates and handling current retirement applications (which is unlikely, I know), HR staffers should review the personnel folders of employees who are eligible or approaching eligibility for retirement to see if there are missing service records and to alert them of any unpaid service credit deposits.
  • Employees should be sure to sign retirement application forms every place a signature is required. And they should read the instructions carefully when choosing a type of annuity, because this is one of the most important questions on the retirement application.
  • Prior to retirement, employees should be asked to sign a Certified Summary of Federal Service form, signifying that all their service has been accounted for and documented for forwarding to OPM. I’ve talked to many employees who have retired, but have never been asked to sign this statement.

A final thought: Agencies should ensure they have an adequate number of well-trained retirement specialists. These employees should be motivated to provide compassionate service and strive for accuracy. This can be achieved only by offering a career path of increasing grade levels based on expertise and performance. Since the retirement system isn’t automated yet, retirement counselors who have years of experience are worth their weight in gold.

 

Tammy Flanagan is the senior benefits director for the National Institute of Transition Planning Inc., which conducts federal retirement planning workshops and seminars. She has spent 25 years helping federal employees take charge of their retirement by understanding their benefits.

For more retirement planning help, tune in to "For Your Benefit," presented by the National Institute of Transition Planning Inc. live on Federal News Radio on Mondays at 10 a.m. ET on WFED AM 1500 in the Washington-metro area. Archived shows are available on NITPInc.com.

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