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Key developments in the world of federal employee benefits: health, pay, and much more.
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Retirement Backlog Continues to Grow, Compensation Fund in Budget Won’t Be for Raises, and More

The annual flood of federal employee retirement claims spilled into February this year, as the Office of Personnel Management’s retirement backlog topped the 24,000 mark.

There were 13,290 new retirement claims filed last month, which marks a slight decrease from the 14,590 requests made in January, when the number of people leaving the federal civil service reaches its peak most years. But that figure is well above the total for the same time period in 2017, when only 9,114 people filed for retirement.

Although OPM increased the number of claims it processed last month, completing 9,532 requests over January’s 8,638, it barely made a dent in the backlog, which increased by nearly 4,000 to a total of 24,225. The agency’s monthly average processing time decreased from 63 days in January to 46 days. 

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The higher-than-usual February figures come after a month filled with gloomy policy proposals affecting federal employees. President Trump’s fiscal 2019 budget request included a pay freeze for all civilian feds, as well as a number of significant cuts to retirement...

A TSP Call Center Crunch, and Blended Retirement Hits a Milestone

When the federal government’s 401(k)-style retirement savings program underwent an effort to significantly upgrade the capacity of its customer-service phone line, officials expected wait times to improve. Instead, they grew by nearly two minutes last month.

Last year, the Thrift Savings Plan completed a massive upgrade to the hardware, software and overall capacity of its call center, the TSP Thriftline. The effort improved the call center’s reliability, made the IT environment more secure, and it quadrupled the number of available phone lines.

But officials said Monday that while the Thriftline is handling more calls than ever before, the amount of time that customers must wait before reaching a representative has grown as well. This is due to a combination of staffing shortages, increased efforts to validate customers’ identities, and a previously unmeasurable number of people who simply weren’t getting through to the answering system in the first place.

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January is considered the peak season for TSP’s call center, as people examine or re-examine their investments and contributions and prepare for tax season. Over the course of last month, average...

A TSP Call Center Spike, Shutdown Back Pay and More

Last week, the Office of Personnel Management confirmed in a memo that any federal employee who was furloughed as the result of the hours-long government shutdown earlier this month will receive back pay.

Although Congress early on Feb. 9 approved a bill to fund the government until March 23 and to raise overall spending caps outlined in the 2011 Budget Control Act, the fact that lawmakers missed the Feb. 8 deadline meant that many feds spent at least a portion of their work day waiting on the government to officially reopen, said acting OPM Director Kathleen McGettigan.

OPM instructed agencies to use flexibility when considering employees’ pay and leave status and encouraged them to use “excused absence” status when appropriate. The agency’s instructions also indicated that a pay freeze on top political appointees and officials, in place since fiscal 2013, would remain in effect until the end of the current continuing resolution.

Participants in the federal government’s 401(k)-style retirement program apparently were especially eager to discuss their investments with officials Tuesday, as the Thrift Savings Plan sent out a notification informing people that call center volume was higher than usual.

But the flood of calls was...

Workforce Plan Stresses Pay for Performance, OPM Nominee Advances, and More

The Office of Personnel Management joined President Trump’s call for pay-for-performance in the federal civil service when it released its five-year strategic plan last week.

The quadrennial Federal Workforce Priorities Report listed a number of priorities for agencies in the realm of workforce management, particularly succession planning, improved technology, and better employee development and recognition of top performers. It also stressed enhancing productivity by encouraging physical activity among employees to improve their health. 

The report said OPM plans to introduce programs that “appropriately recognize and reward employees who demonstrate high levels of performance,” specifically citing the White House’s agency reorganization plans and management agenda, which is slated to be released next month, as avenues to achieve better retention of high-performing feds.

“Employee recognition programs encourage sustained excellence and productivity and help retain top talent, which becomes increasingly important as the workforce is streamlined,” OPM wrote. “Recognizing high performers is highlighted in both the Office of Management and Budget’s agency reform memo and OPM’s workforce reshaping guidance. It is a proactive and accountability-based practice that can help avoid performance problems and conduct issues.

OPM also suggested a number of specific ways agencies could encourage workers to stay...

New Recruitment Incentives, Agriculture Telework Policy Delayed, and More

The Office of Personnel Management announced updates last week to how agencies can offer recruitment and retention incentives to federal employees and candidates for government jobs.

Agencies currently have the authority to offer recruitment, relocation and retention incentives to current or prospective federal workers up to 25 percent of the position’s annual rate of base pay or up to 100 percent of one year of base pay spread over four years without preapproval from OPM. Additionally, agencies can offer incentives up to 10 percent of annual base pay for groups of critical employees without OPM approval.

But in order to meet a “critical agency need,” departments can request waivers to these incentive limits. In an effort to simplify and expedite the approval process, OPM officials have updated templates for agency waiver requests, and posted the forms on its website.

“The fillable templates are intended to help agencies include all of the required information and facilitate the request and approval process,” wrote Mark Reinhold, OPM’s associate director for employee services.

Meanwhile, the Agriculture Department has reportedly delayed enforcement of a policy announced last month that would significantly curb employees’ ability to telework.

Last month, the agency rolled back an...