All feds wind up buried in limestone mine

Tuesday - 10/9/2012, 2:00am EDT

If you plan to retire from government, even if that day is years away, be advised that...

Processing a federal retirement application claim can be one of the most painful and thankless jobs in government. And that's if it's done right!

Over a career lasting 20, 30 or 40 years (and many do), an individual leaves a lengthy, sometimes broken-service paper trail. Every promotion, every job change, every move to another agency must be documented and confirmed. Same for breaks in service.

Bottom line: It can be a paperwork nightmare. Once your agency sends in your retirement application (and that can take weeks), it then goes to Post Office Box 45, the address of OPM's Retirement Operations Center in Boyers, Pa. The nearest big town is Butler.

Government personnel records are stored there in a bomb-proof (we hope!) limestone mine that's been turned into one of the largest offices in the world without windows. A number of private firms also keep their most precious records there.

Until their applications can be verified and approved, new retirees are put on interim payments which can range anywhere from 44 percent to 80 percent of what their estimated final annuity will be. Then they wait. Some for a couple of months. Some for more than a year.

There has always been a claims backlog at OPM. OPM Director John Berry, himself a long-time fed, made reducing that backlog a top priority, including by hiring more people. The backlog is being cut down despite a surge in retirement applications due to an uptick in buyout and early-retirement offers and massive buyout-triggered retirements in the U.S. Postal Service. The National Active and Retired Federal Employees Association (NARFE) has given high marks to OPM for its efforts to reduce the backlog. At the end of September, there were 41,176 applications in the pipeline. OPM got almost 12,000 new retirement applications last month. It projected it would process 11,500 claims, but actually cleared 12,563.

But those are numbers. When it happens to you — when you are put on half-rations for months — it is a 100 percent catastrophe. Here's one story with a likely happy ending. It started with this email to me:

Mike: I am writing out of frustration regarding the ever-growing retirement backlog. I retired Aug. 31 with 32 years of service at two agencies. My first payment theoretically should have come this month, but alas no.

That doesn't surprise me and thankfully I stash some liquid assets for this nightmare, because the bills don't stop. However, what is most frustrating to me is that today, in 2012, I can track the shipment of an order of peanuts from the time the order is processed to the moment it reaches my door. In my years as an active federal employee, I have witnessed every agency become electronically connected yet OPM continues to leave itself open to criticism because they do not electronically tag retirement applications in a way that I could pick up the phone and track the progression of the application. While such tracking would not make the funds available any sooner, they would allow OPM workers to process claims with less interaction and interruptions because of nervous and financially devastated annuitants.

While electronic tagging may or may not speed up the process, it would go a very long way in taking some the mystery out of the process... no amount of pre-retirement counseling can ever prepare you for the psychological devastation of going from a biweekly payment to a mysterious, cumbersome and overly lengthy retirement payment.

I know that you are well respected in the federal community, particularly management, so it is my hope that you would broach this subject with someone at OPM that could make a difference.

Thanks for being there for me to vent, and now I will go back to the kitchen and juggle my meager finances while I wait for OPM to get the job done. —Richard P., formerly of GSA

Guess what? Within hours of his email, Richard P., got another email. It said:
Hi Mr. Prince,

First, my apologies for the delay you are experiencing. I am grateful for your long career of service to our nation. I have asked my team to look into this right away.

Again, my apologies, John.

That's John Berry.

Not, as they say, bad for government work!


NEARLY USELESS FACTOID

By Jack Moore

Washington Square Park in New York City, home to the eponymous Washington Arch, was once a cemetery. An archaeological assessment in 2005 estimated more than 20,000 bodies are buried beneath the park.