The long gray line: Your retirement

Friday - 1/20/2012, 2:00am EST

If you've retired recently, the bad news is it could be a while before you get a complete annuity payment. You'll have to make do on anywhere from 40 to 80 percent of what you expected for longer than is comfortable. It may be awhile before you get a full annuity check from Uncle Sam. You'll have to make due on interim payments of anywhere from 40 to 80 percent of what you expected.

If you are about to retire, you will be put in the back of a very long, slow-moving line. With buyouts and early-out offers popping, the number of people heading for the exits could explode.

The good news is that the Office of Personnel Management admits it has a problem and John Berry, a long-time fed who runs the agency, has made fixing it a top priority. Unlike some former OPM directors, who loathed bureaucrats, Berry genuinely likes them and wants this fixed. The problem is how?

On TV, a sharp techie (it helps if they are Goths) can solve any problem in 22 minutes. In a feature length movie it can take up to 90 minutes to defuse the bomb, find the money or capture the world's leading terrorist. But many personnel records are on paper and they must be read, checked and approved. A recent column on the subject prompted some been-there-done-that retirees to offer some suggestions worth looking at. One suggests you keep copies of each of your personnel actions (like you keep IRS records). The other says it's time to call in the cavalry, by rehiring veterans of the retirement wars:

  • "As a former federal human resources specialist I'd recommend you remind folks that they should keep a copy of every SF-50 or personnel action form that they receive over the course of their careers. And before they retire, they should compare their agency's copy of their OPF — official personnel folder, electronic or hard copy — with their own stack of forms they've kept at home. Any forms they have at home that are not in their official file should be added by the employee before the OPF (official personnel folder) goes to OPM for retirement processing. Also remind folks to be willing and prompt to supply information to OPM when asked.

    "Before I retired I went through my OPF and added several forms that I had copies of at home but were missing from the 'official' file held by my agency. I also responded promptly to inquiries from OPM regarding information they didn't have but I did because I'd kept all of the insurance forms, retirement forms, personnel action forms and such. Employees can help to speed the process if they work at it. But it takes a career's worth of effort collecting and saving those personnel related forms in a 'shadow' folder at home. " Wayne Coleman Annapolis, MD

  • "Mike: I read your article on OPM's delay in processing retirement papers. I worked for EPA for over 24 years with no breaks in service or other complications. My annuity is under FERS and my annuity is a very simple calculation. I do realize that OPM also has to verify supporting documents which takes time.

    "I retired on June 30th of 2011 and I still don't have final numbers yet. I called OPM in November and they told me that it was taking about seven months on average. I called again yesterday and was told no one had yet been assigned to process my retirement papers and that it was taking seven months to eight months on average to process an employee out. They now assigned my case to an escalation team (it wasn't clear what they would do) and told me I should hear something within five days or call back.

    "I also saw a FAQ from OPM on the web that explained that the delays in processing were due to reliance on a new automation program which didn't work. This was coupled with a concurrent reduction in FTEs because OPM believed that the program would reduce the need for personnel. I can send you the link to the OPM explanation if you are interested."

    I guess I have two points: 1) The problem is worse that you stated in your article; and 2) OPM should consider recalling experienced staff that they reduced, if possible, using a waiver and paying them their salary and retirement benefits to get through this tough spot. DOD has used this option for critical staff under this type situation for a year or two. I realize that OPM is taking actions to try to fix the problem, but unless congress is aware of how bad the situation is, sufficient resources may not be supplied. Government managers are often reluctant to admit how bad problems are to congress. This is a lesson for government agencies that should carefully avoid knee-jerk reductions in personnel, which then lead to serious performance problems. To fix the problem, then requires hiring new, inexperienced employees or expensive contractors." Frank V.