OPM had nearly 25,000 retirement requests pending at the end of January, as the agency faces its busiest season for new claims.

OPM had nearly 25,000 retirement requests pending at the end of January, as the agency faces its busiest season for new claims. Casanowe / GETTY IMAGES

OPM faces its first test of recent retirement processing tweaks

The number of new retirement claims received by the federal government’s HR agency doubled in January, marking the start of the annual busy season.

The annual retirement surge is officially upon us, as the number of new claims doubled between December 2023 and last month, giving the Office of Personnel Management a chance to stress the efficacy of recent tweaks to the retirement process.

In January, 12,997 federal employees filed for retirement, a 130% increase over the 5,662 retirement claims filed the previous month. That figure is in line with past Januarys; in 2023, OPM received 12,404 new claims in the first month of the year.

OPM processed 6,467 claims in January, modest decrease from the 7,196 it processed last December and a sizeable dip from the 9,142 it processed a year ago. As a result, OPM’s backlog jumped from 14,292 pending requests in December 2023 to 20,822 outstanding claims last month. Still, that backlog marks an improvement over a year ago, when OPM ended January with 24,858 pending requests.

The federal government’s HR agency has long been dogged by complaints regarding the retirement process, which in part was caused by the fact that agency personnel records are largely paper-based and infamously stored at a bunker in rural Pennsylvania. That was only exacerbated by the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, as the backlog skyrocketed to as high as 25,000 pending claims and processing times soared.

Under Director Kiran Ahuja, OPM finally released a long-awaited IT strategic plan, which a pilot digital retirement system as well as moving toward the creation of electronic personnel records and online retirement applications. A “limited pilot” of the new online application has been implemented for the Small Business Administration and four agencies within the Agriculture Department, OPM officials said last week.

Additionally, the agency has instituted a number of short-term measures to shore up the retirement process, including increased staffing, improved cross-agency coordination and a guide to help retirees navigate the process and avoid common application pitfalls. And last week, OPM published a video version of its guide to the retirement process.

So far, those efforts appear to have borne fruit. The 14,292 pending claims at the end of last year marked the smallest backlog OPM has seen 2017, and just 1,300 over the agency’s target. Additionally, the average processing time on a monthly basis has fallen from 93 days in January 2023 to just 66 days last month.