OPM’s goal is a “steady state” of 13,000 pending claims at any given time.

OPM’s goal is a “steady state” of 13,000 pending claims at any given time. Ryan McVay/Getty Images

OPM’s retirement backlog just hit its lowest level since 2017

The federal government’s HR agency’s efforts to modernize the retirement process have been buoyed by increased investment and renewed focus on customer service.

The Office of Personnel Management’s oft-scrutinized backlog of pending retirement claims from recently departing federal employees reached a six-year low last month.

The federal government’s dedicated human resources agency has now reported decreases in the number of retirement requests that have yet to be processed for each of the five months since January, the month in which OPM sees a spike in new retirement applications each year. And in June specifically, the backlog fell to 16,370 pending cases, which marks the lowest that the backlog has been since 2017, when the number of pending cases briefly fell to roughly 14,000 claims.

OPM’s retirement backlog has long been a sore subject for the agency, but the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated many of the challenges associated with quickly processing federal retirees’ annuity payments, in part due to the fact that the process remains heavily paper-based. As recently as March 2022, the backlog sat at 36,349 pending claims.

Despite continuing to chip into the backlog—OPM’s goal is a “steady state” of 13,000 pending claims at any given time—the agency saw its performance slip slightly in terms of the average time it takes to process a retirement claim. After a 2022 in which the agency averaged around 90 days to process a retirement request, OPM boasted a monthly average processing time of 65 days last February, a figure that has steadily crept up to 74 days last month.

The agency’s progress in reducing the backlog comes as it undertakes a concerted effort to revamp the process, bolstered by an increase in OPM’s annual appropriations last year. OPM is in the midst of developing a strategic plan to modernize the agency’s IT infrastructure and the retirement process, particularly by digitizing records and encouraging employer agencies to do the same.

And in May, OPM released a new three-page guide for recent retirees to help them navigate the retirement process. The guide, which is updated monthly to reflect the most recent time estimates, breaks down what agencies are responsible for which phase of the process, as well as a checklist of actions feds can take to ensure their retirement claim is processed as quickly and painlessly as possible.

Lori Amos, OPM’s deputy associate director for retirement services, told reporters in May that while the current goal of the retirement guide is to better set expectations for federal workers and improve customer service, it could evolve as the HR agency upgrades its processes.

“Absolutely, this [guide] is a need right now, because this is our current state: we’re primarily paper-based and need to manage expectations and get information to customers, because we don’t want them worried about their annuity payment,” she said. “Now, once we start to embark on our IT modernization effort, we don’t know what this guide may look like. If it’s automated, this form itself could be digitized, but that’s in the future and TBD.”

This recent progress could be in jeopardy, however. Republicans in Congress have advanced appropriations legislation that, if enacted, would fund OPM at fiscal 2022 levels, which marks a $49.2 million cut from its current appropriation and a $134.7 million reduction from President Biden’s fiscal 2024 budget request.