OPM Falling Further Behind on Retirement Applications Backlog

The Office of Personnel Management saw yet another surge in the number of new retirement applications come in during February, pushing the outstanding backlog higher. OPM is aware of the problem and wants more funding to hire more people to fix it. Will this approach work?

The Office of Personnel Management saw the new applications from retiring federal workers continue to pour in last month.

OPM received 11,293 new applications which pushed the outstanding backlog of claims even higher. It now stands at 22,692, a 14.83% increase over last month. In January, the backlog of claims surged 73%.

If there’s any good news to be had, it’s that the backlog hasn’t gotten back to the level it stood at this time last year. Last February, the backlog had grown to 24,014 (see Retirement Claims Backlog Grows Again in February).

But, to say that OPM can never completely get ahead of the problem would be an understatement. The process has a clear pattern to it: the backlog gets slowly whittled away throughout the year, then a predictable surge comes in during January and February and all gains made during the year are erased. It’s like rat running endlessly inside of a wheel.

For some history, see some of my older articles: OPM’s Retirement Backlog Continues to Grow and OPM Retirement Claims Backlog Jumps 14%. The overall backlog from the last few years has come down, but the cycle of the exploding backlog at the beginning of the year has persisted.

The bad news with the incessant backlog though is probably going to be for federal retirees. With OPM running so far behind on processing the applications, retirees are likely to run into an increasing number of delays with their applications being processed or questions being answered.

Acting OPM director Beth Cobert said as much in a recent blog post she wrote in which she acknowledged the problem the agency has with the unending backlog and said, effectively, that they need more money to solve the problem.

The question is, will more money really solve the problem?

OPM’s inability to handle the problems its facing with retirement claims is nothing new. FedSmith.com author Ralph Smith wrote an article a few years ago called Back to the Future: OPM and the Federal Employee Retirement Tsunami. In it, he looked at the history of how OPM has addressed the situation. Ralph noted that OPM spent several hundred million dollars developing a program to swiftly and easily handle the applications for retiring federal employees. While this sounded promising, the 10-year, $290 million dollar program was ultimately scrapped (but the money had still been spent).

Then OPM director John Berry told Congress that OPM was only able to complete 3.5 retirement cases per day, per employee, and he agreed this was “unacceptable.” Berry also said the agency had no business plan for fixing the problem.

So the solution was to hire more people. A summary put out by OPM at the time said it would bring “all hands on deck” to add claims production capacity immediately, hire 56 new Legal Administrative Specialists (LAS) and also hire 20 new Customer Service Specialists (CSS).

Compare this with what Beth Cobert wrote in her recent blog post:

“At Retirement Services, 80 percent of our budget is devoted to personnel. But, at certain times in the year that is not enough and we need to add to our customer service staff to help handle spikes in retirement claims.

“For example, the beginning of each year is the busiest, with 26 percent of retirement claims being filed during the first six weeks of the year. In January, we brought detailees on board from the human resources retirement sections of the United States Postal Service (USPS) and from the Defense Finance and Accounting Services (DFAS) to help us handle the dramatic increase in claims.”

Sounds very similar to the approach Berry was taking to the situation 4 years ago.

So did these efforts from 2012 work to reduce the retirement applications backlog? Look at the table below and decide for yourself.

Month Claims Received Claims Processed Inventory % Processed in 60 days or less (YTD) % Processed in 60 days or less (Monthly) Avg. # of Days to Process Case in 60 days or less Avg. # of Days to Process Case in more than 60 days
Oct-14 10,155 8,785 14,137 83% 83% 36 104
Nov-14 5,746 5,844 14,039 83% 84% 37 107
Dec-14 4,077 6,447 11,669 84% 84% 45 99
Jan-15 18,629 7,662 22,636 80% 71% 43 91
Feb-15 9,219 7,841 24,014 81% 82% 33 103
Mar-15 5,478 8,898 20,594 82% 86% 46 99
Apr-15 6,292 8,660 18,226 73% 26% 49 74
May-15 7,845 10,697 15,374 68% 45% 47 79
Jun-15 6,920 7,783 14,511 69% 75% 44 99
Jul-15 9,862 7,918 16,455 69% 72% 45 97
Aug-15 7,341 7,446 16,350 70% 76% 45 98
Sep-15 6,300 7,944 14,706 70% 76% 43 94
Oct-15 8,374 10,438 12,642 74% 74% 38 86
Nov-15 6,019 6,099 12,562 76% 82% 37 98
Dec-15 4,753 5,916 11,399 78% 83% 40 104
Jan-16 15,423 7,061 19,761 79% 80% 38 94
Feb-16 11,293 8,362 22,692 80% 85% 36 96


About the Author

Ian Smith is one of the co-founders of FedSmith.com. He has over 20 years of combined experience in media and government services, having worked at two government contracting firms and an online news and web development company prior to his current role at FedSmith.