Retirement Backlog Numbers, Telework Data, Special Pay Rates, and More

A weekly roundup of pay and benefits news.

The Office of Personnel Management received an influx of retirement applications in July, pushing the backlog up to its highest level since March, according to the latest data.

The backlog was at 15,562 claims by the end of July, up 2,033 from June. OPM received 9,238 claims last month – 3,309 more than in June. The agency processed 770 more claims, however, in July than in June. OPM processed 74 percent of cases in 60 days or less last month, down slightly from 75 percent in June. The average number of days it took OPM to process cases that took longer than two months stood at 110 days in July, down from 115 in June.

The retirement claims backlog typically spikes in January and February and then gradually falls throughout the year. Clearing up the retirement claims backlog has been an ongoing struggle for OPM and a constant source of frustration for federal retirees.

While OPM keeps pretty good track of its retirement backlog data, federal agencies in general aren’t doing a great job assessing the cost and benefit of telework apparently, according to the Government Accountability Office. A new GAO report said OPM should issue guidance telling agencies how to identify net savings from their employee telework policies to help the executive branch and Congress assess the value of the flexibility and properly oversee the government’s use of it.

As Eric Katz reported:

Since the passage of the 2010 Telework Enhancement Act, agencies have tracked the usage of telework and, to varying degrees, its benefits. Agencies have been increasingly avoiding reporting their goals for remote work policies since the law’s enactment, however. OPM attributed the fewer spelled out goals to the maturation of the program.

While the law requires annual data collection on telework, OPM has never asked agencies to report specifically on the costs of implementing telework. Individual agencies GAO reviewed for its analysis said costs included salaries for telework coordinators, training for both teleworkers and managers who supervise them and remote access software. OPM has not issued any guidance directing agencies how to calculate the costs or savings that result from telework. 

OPM has issued a few memorandums recently on the subject of pay. Federal agencies have until Oct. 14 to submit documentation requesting special pay rates for hard-to-fill jobs in 2017, according to an Aug. 4 memo. Agencies that aren’t asking for an increase, decrease or elimination of existing special rates for certain occupations and plan to just go with the 2017 annual across-the-board pay raise (likely to be 1.6 percent), don’t have to respond to OPM’s annual call for the salary rate review. The special rates -- which apply to hundreds of federal occupations including law, medicine, engineering and law enforcement -- are calculated by adding a fixed-dollar amount or fixed-percentage amount to the underlying GS base rate. OPM has broad flexibility to establish alternate pay rates to address staffing issues. 

And OPM just announced that civilian federal employees working on stabilization efforts in Iraq are eligible to receive higher premium pay through the end of 2016. OPM’s Aug. 1 memorandum -- released after a May directive from President Obama extended the national emergency in Iraq through May 22, 2017 -- allows civilians working in that country on reconstruction to take advantage of a premium pay cap waiver for a longer period. Agencies can continue to apply the waiver authority, which allows eligible employees to earn more in premium pay through Dec. 31, 2016. Eligible employees can earn up to $237,700 in basic and premium pay in calendar year 2016 under the waiver authority extended in the fiscal 2016 National Defense Authorization Act. 

The federal government is gearing up for the 2016 Combined Federal Campaign. OPM Acting Director Beth Cobert has asked agencies to encourage their employees to contribute to the government’s annual charity drive. This year, feds can choose from more than 18,000 participating charities at the local, national, and international levels. In 2015, federal employees contributed more than $177 million to the worthy causes included in the CFC.

TRICARE beneficiaries who will soon lose their coverage might want to check out an Aug. 17 webinar sponsored by TRICARE and Military One Source. “There are a number of health care options available to service members and their families when they lose TRICARE eligibility,” said a notice on the Air Force Medical Service’s website. “It’s important to know what these options are so that you will continue to meet the health care requirement of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.