OPM: Fixing retirement backlog 'vitally important'

Tuesday - 1/24/2012, 8:49pm EST

OPM Retirement Services Director Ken Zawodny talks to WFED's Emily Kopp

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This is not the easiest time for the Office of Personnel Management to implement a new strategy to tackle its retirement applications backlog.

OPM has received more than 15,000 new applications this month, which is more than double the normal load. While January is always the busiest month for retirements, agencies also are offering buyouts and early retirements at a brisk pace.

All of that is adding to the backlog of about 50,000 cases.

"We're going to look back in a few months and say, 'We were able to overcome all the work that came in,'" OPM Retirement Services Director Ken Zawodny told Federal News Radio.

The agency's four-point plan to speed up its handling of retirement claims combines low- and high-tech strategies. OPM is working on automating the process one step at a time, starting with making the application itself electronic.

"It's important that we create a success and build upon that success," Zawodny said.

That's perhaps the biggest aspect that distinguishes this strategy from earlier attempts that failed, he said.

"Past strategies have involved promises of an IT solution that would streamline some of the processes we have in place," he said. "A conscious effort was made not to hire individuals in the hopes that automation would replace those individuals."

Low-tech solution

That was a mistake, he said. OPM is hiring more than 50 employees to review and process retirement applications.

"There are some things that are low tech," he said. "There are some parts and pieces of the process that take an adjudicator to review the information; compare it against rules, regulations and laws governing retirement and employment; and make calculated decisions based on that information."

OPM is also recruiting 26 customer-service specialists.

The agency aims to process retirement claims within 60 days of receipt. It takes at least four months now — and sometimes as long as a year.

While OPM began implementing the plan before making it public, Zawodny could not say whether it was working.

"I don't have an answer yet," he said.

Gaps in applications cause headaches

In the meantime, new retirees can expect to receive monthly interim checks valued, on average, at 80 percent of the final annuity.

But those interim payments can take a while too, especially if the information that agencies give OPM is incomplete.

OPM has implemented a "triage" system to identify common errors or gaps in applications, Zawodny said.

"In the past, we didn't have that capability so that an adjudicator, when they received the file, had to do some legwork themselves," he said.

Between 20 to 40 percent of the retirement applications that OPM gets from agencies are incomplete, OPM Director John Berry told Federal News Radio last week.

"It takes a long time for us to chase down those pieces of paper," he said.

Zawodny said OPM would hold training sessions next week to educate agency representatives on the new strategy.

Congress watching

Meanwhile, Congress is watching carefully. At a hearing in November that focused on OPM's troubling past with technology, including the botched rollout of its federal hiring website USAJobs.gov, lawmakers told Berry that they were running out of patience.

Tomorrow, OPM will testify again on its retirement system before the House Oversight and Government Reform Subcommittee on the Federal Workforce, U.S. Postal Service and Labor Policy.

That hearing will examine proposals to reduce retirement benefits to federal employees and members of Congress. The House approved legislation last month that would fund an extension of the payroll tax cut by reducing federal employees' retirement benefits.

"New employees (those with less than five years of service) would experience a 41 percent reduction in their deferred compensation," David Snell, director of retirement benefit services at the National Active and Retired Federal Employees Association, is expected to say, based on his written testimony.

The bill would calculate annuities on an employee's highest five years of service, rather than highest three years. It would also reduce the accrual rate.

The median Federal Employees Retirement System benefit would go from $720 per month to $425, he said.

OPM Chief Operating Officer Chuck Grimes is also expected to testify at the hearing.

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