Pace of federal retirements slows at start of 2014

Wednesday - 2/5/2014, 11:18am EST

The number of federal employees filing for retirement in January — typically the most popular month to retire for federal workers — swelled to more than 17,000, according to new data from the Office of Personnel Management.

But that's hardly the retirement tsunami envisioned by some dire predictions.

OPM expected about 20,000 federal workers to file for retirement last month — about 2,600 more than actually did so.

In fact, this past month marked the first time in at least two years that the number of federal workers filing for retirement in January fell below 20,000 claims. Last year at this time, retirement claims received by OPM surged to more than 22,000.

Federal retirements have been on the wane over the past several months. In every month since last July, fewer feds have filed for retirement than projected by OPM. In December, alone, only about 5,000 feds filed for retirement — fewer than in any other month in nearly two years.

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Still, more federal employees retired in 2013 — 114,000 — than the year before. That uptick was fueled by a surge of retirement cases in the first three months of the year. In addition to the usual January bump, OPM received nearly four times as many claims as expected in February 2013 and nearly two times as many in March of that year.

OPM expects to receive 8,400 retirement applications both this month and next.

Backlog inches downward

Despite receiving fewer claims than expected last month, OPM processed about 2,700 fewer retirement applications than projected. The 8,724 claims processed in January marks the fourth month in a row that OPM failed to meet its processing targets.

But thanks to receiving fewer claims than expected in January, the longstanding backlog of retirement claims continued to inch downward.

The backlog now stands at 21,296 claims, slightly below the projected inventory of 21,442 claims. OPM projects it will all but clear the backlogged inventory by May.

While OPM has struggled to meet its monthly goals over the past several months, the agency does appear to be making progress. The more than 8,700 claims processed in January is the agency's best showing since October when it cleared more than 11,000 claims.

OPM's strategy for cutting the backlog was thwarted last year largely because of the mandatory sequestration budget cuts, which largely ended the agency's use of routine overtime for retirement-claims processors. The agency restored limited overtime late last year, but OPM officials say they will only deploy it when faced with unexpected surges.

The feared federal retirement tsunami, though long predicted, has proved to be elusive.

In a recent report, the Government Accountability Office estimated about 270,000 federal employees were eligible to retire as of September 2012 — or about 14 percent of the total federal workforce. By September 2017, that number is expected to balloon to nearly 600,000 — or 31 percent of the workforce.

Still, many experts now expect more of a slow leak than a massive rush to the exits.

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