Return of Overtime Helps Cut Retirement Backlog in August

Queue of claims decreases 11 percent from the previous month.

The retirement claims backlog fell 11 percent between July and August, in part because the Office of Personnel Management resumed overtime for employees last month.

“A year-end budget review” enabled OPM to reinstate “limited overtime” for retirement services staff in August, the agency said. The agency had eliminated all overtime at the end of April because of budget cuts from sequestration.

That led to a slight increase in the claims backlog during the spring, slowing the agency’s momentum in clearing the queue. Now OPM is slightly ahead of its monthly projections in eliminating a decades-old problem. The backlog currently stands at 22,750 claims, nearly half of what it was in July 2012.

The agency managed to process 1,455 more claims than it expected to in August. It also received 296 fewer new retirement claims than it expected last month, which helped OPM get back on track after what so far has been a record year for retirements.

The agency hopes to clear up the backlog to a "consistent workload" by March 2014 -- roughly seven months later than the original target date of July 2013.

The agency estimated that the loss of funding because of the sequester reduced retirement case processing by 20 percent to 25 percent. Still, the agency remains committed to its goal of processing 90 percent of retirement claims within two months of receipt, Ken Zawodny, OPM’s associate director for retirement services, said in an interview last month.

OPM statistics show a slowdown beginning in May 2013, shortly after the agency got rid of overtime and reduced call center hours. Between May and July of this year, the agency reduced the backlog by 2.3 percent, or 609 claims. Contrast that with the time period between May 2012 and July 2012, when OPM decreased the backlog by about 10 percent. Nearly 53,000 new retirement applications poured in between January and March of this year, many of them from Postal Service employees taking advantage of the early outs and buyouts offered by the financially strapped agency.

Despite the setbacks, OPM has made steady, if slow, progress in tackling a claims backlog that has been growing for decades. The average processing time for a claim is now around 91 days, down from about 156 days in February 2012.

Still, many federal retirees continue to 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.

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