Citing sequestration, OPM pushes back retirement processing goal

Monday - 8/5/2013, 10:00am EDT

Ken Zawodny, OPM's Associate Director for Retirement Services, on "In Depth" with Francis Rose

Download mp3

The Office of Personnel Management now estimates it will not be able to clear a longstanding backlog of retirement claims until next summer.

And that's only if employee overtime, which was suspended earlier this year due to budget cuts, is reinstated when the new fiscal year starts in October.

OPM, which had originally planned to clear the backlog by this summer, announced the revised timeline Monday in an update to its retirement processing strategic plan.

OPM Associate Director for Retirement Services Ken Zawodny told Federal News Radio the suspension of overtime in late April has left the agency essentially treading water when it comes to processing retirement applications.

"We are keeping up with what's coming in, but we're really unable to take big bites off of the inventory," Zawodny said in an interview on In Depth with Francis Rose.

OPM was also thrown off course by a larger than expected number of retirements in the beginning of the year, fueled by a surge of early from the U.S. Postal Service totaling more than 20,000.

OPM debuted its strategic plan for cutting the backlog in January 2012. The plan involved hiring dozens of new specialists, a Lean Six Sigma review and expanding the use of overtime.

By the end of July, according to the original plan, the agency hoped to have the backlog all but eliminated and then could begin processing 90 percent of all new cases within 60 days.

OPM was well on its way to that goal, Zawodny said. Between February and April — even with the influx of unexpected claims — OPM processed an average of 14,000 claims, well above the 11,500 monthly claims the strategic plan called for.

"We were really ramping up our ability to process cases and with the use of overtime and our improved processes, I honestly believe that we still would've been able to drive down the inventory," Zawodny said.

However, the number of claims processed has dropped in every month since OPM suspended overtime.

In July, OPM processed just 7,700 claims, the fewest number of claims since launching the strategic plan. The backlog still stands at more than 25,000 cases; by this time OPM had hoped to have cleared it down to about half that.

"We have a very dedicated staff, and one of the saddest things I had to see this year, as we eliminated overtime, was … the let-down that they experienced," Zawodny said. "They saw the goal line at the end and kind of felt like Charlie Brown on Thanksgiving trying to kick that football. They were running, getting ready to kick the football when it got pulled away from them."

The update to the strategic plan also reported some long-term progress in the agency's retirement processing efforts. The average time to process a retirement claim is 91 days — down from 156 days when the agency launched the plan. The agency is also planning another Lean Six Sigma review at its Washington, D.C., office and has seen success with a number of modest IT upgrades.

OPM expects to receive 8,400 new retirement claims this month and to process 9,500 claims.

RELATED STORIES:

Sequestration threatens OPM's low-tech plan to beat retirement backlog

Will sequestration, retirement wave derail OPM's backlog goal

Sequestration could cause delays in retirement processing, OPM says