Office of Personnel Management Director John Berry said the current retirement process has an "ugly history." (Sheila Vemmer / Staff file photo)
Office of Personnel Management Director John Berry pledged Wednesday that his office will work harder to get retiring feds their full annuity checks more quickly.
OPM will transfer 40 staff members to the 130-person division handling retirement and all employees will be eligible to work overtime immediately, Berry said at a news conference called to answer retirees' complaints reported in Federal Times' Oct. 18 story "New retirees shortchanged: 6- to 12-month waits for full pension checks."
The article detailed complaints by newly retired federal employees, some of whom waited up to a year to receive the full amount of monthly pension they are entitled to. Until OPM calculates and pays retirees the full amount of their annuity, the agency pays them only a fraction of what it estimates they are entitled to.
Retirees also complained that OPM has been unresponsive when they call or write to ask when their annuities will be paid in full.
"I recognize the hardship this poses to our retirees," Berry said. "We need to do it different; we need to do it better."
OPM "accepts full responsibility" for the delay in issuing full retirement checks to new retirees, which now averages 138 days — about four and a half months. He said he also will work to "maximize" the amount feds will get in their interim payments, he said. Berry did not say what percentage of total estimated retirement pay new retirees are now getting from OPM, nor did he say what percentage should be paid to new retirees.
OPM plans to hire 40 more full-time employees for its retirement division, but those hires will not be made until Congress approves a 2011 budget, he said.
The current retirement process has an "ugly history," Berry said. There were multiple multimillion-dollar attempts at modernizing the process of calculating annuities, but all have failed, he said.
Since his appointment in April, he said he welcomed the White House designating OPM's retirement problems a "high-risk area."
"If this is not a high risk area, then what the hell is? Berry said.
OPM will pursue a small-scale approach in which pieces of the process will be automated, he said. A good goal would be to reduce workload by 20 to 30 percent through automation, he said. But when pressed, Berry did not say when OPM intends to reach that goal.
He added he will make sure retirees get responses to their questions on the first attempt and by making sure OPM call centers have the resources they need.
OPM made a mistake in its last modernization attempt by reducing its retirement staff in anticipation of efficiency gains that never happened, he said. There were 178 full-time specialists in 2006, down to 130 in 2010 for roughly the same number of claims.
He said if OPM needs to do more training, it will do it, and if it needs to change the way it processes the paperwork, OPM will do that too.
He said he hopes to make a "severe dent" in the backlog before January, when the number of feds retiring usually spikes. But he did not say how many new retirees are now in that backlog awaiting full retirement payments, nor did he define what a "severe dent" would be.
"This is not a one shot deal," Berry said. "We are going to be getting this ship turned and in the right direction."