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Sequester hits home for federal employees

Less overtime, bigger backlogs

May. 6, 2013 - 09:03AM   |  
By STEPHEN LOSEY   |   Comments
TSA Modifies Security Screening Rules For People O
Passengers line up to a Transportation Security Administration officer at Portland International Airport in Oregon. Because of the sequester, TSA has cut employees' overtime hours. (Natalie Behring / Getty Images)

Until last year, the Office of Personnel Management’s program to process federal employee retirements was a sluggish, bureaucratic morass that left new retirees waiting six months to a year for their full pensions. Then the agency hired and trained more specialists, overhauled its processes and ramped up its overtime.

No more.

Last week, OPM canceled all overtime for its retirement services division, citing the sequester’s budget cuts. And in an April 29 blog post, Associate Director of Retirement Services Ken Zawodny said new federal retirees should expect longer waits for full pension checks — worsening a problem OPM had promised last year to solve.

The Transportation Security Administration, Interior Department, Social Security Administration and other agencies have also cracked down on OT to live with the sequester’s budget cuts.

The Department of Homeland Security’s Customs and Border Protection was going to cancel overtime. But in a statement to Federal Times, CBP said it is reconsidering that, now that Congress extended the department more budgeting flexibility as part of the continuing resolution that funds government for the rest of this fiscal year.

“Although the budget restrictions imposed by sequestration are significant, the bill’s provisions allow CBP to mitigate to some degree the impacts of the reduced budget on operations and on CBP’s workforce,” CBP spokeswoman Erlinda Byrd said. “CBP continues to assess the exact impact the legislation will have on our operations and our workforce.”

TSA cuts overtime costs

TSA Deputy Administrator John Halinski told lawmakers April 18 that the agency hopes to avoid furloughs by reducing the amount of overtime it uses.

Overtime use had been on the rise at TSA until the sequester began to take hold. About a year ago, TSA spent roughly $2.3 million per biweekly pay period on overtime. That per-pay period amount increased to roughly $3 million for the first four months of fiscal 2013. But over the last three months, TSA said it has spent about $1.8 million on overtime per pay period.

Halinski said at an April 18 House Oversight and Government Reform subcommittee hearing that TSA has not experienced longer lines at airport checkpoints as a result of the sequester.

But David Borer, general counsel for the American Federation of Government Employees, which represents TSA screeners, said the overtime cuts could come back to haunt the agency in the coming months. He said AFGE is already receiving anecdotal reports of longer lines at some airports, though he said he was uncertain whether it was due to the overtime cuts or increases in travelers.

Borer and TSA agreed that the sequester-driven overtime cuts have not compromised security. But Borer said that is because TSA screeners are working harder and faster to pick up the slack.

“Whether that can be sustained for the long term remains to be seen,” Borer said. “Officers are breaking their backs to try to move things through. They’re committed, and they step up, but it’s no way to run an agency.”

And Borer fears that if overtime cuts continue, TSA screeners may not be able to keep working at their current increased pace. That could mean lines at checkpoints will lengthen considerably — especially as the busy summer travel season approaches.

At that point, Borer said TSA’s leadership may have to go to Capitol Hill and tell them passenger gridlock will continue until lawmakers provide enough funding to restore overtime. He said the situation may end up being similar to Congress’ speedy vote to end furloughs at the Federal Aviation Administration, when there weren’t enough air traffic controllers manning control towers and flights began to get delayed.

“As we’ve seen with the air traffic controllers, when planes are delayed, Congress sits up and does something,” Borer said.

Longer wait for complete pension

But OPM expects its sequester-driven overtime cuts — which it also hopes will help it avoid furloughs — to start biting soon.

In January 2012, former OPM Director John Berry said that as part of the effort to fix the decades-old pension processing problem, the agency would authorize more overtime for specialists who had proven they can accurately and swiftly adjudicate claims.

The amount of overtime used by OPM’s retirement services division increased considerably. In fiscal 2012, OPM said its retirement services employees worked 94,000 hours of overtime in fiscal 2012. In the first seven months of fiscal 2013, retirement services employees worked more than 65,000 hours of overtime. If that pace continued for the rest of the fiscal year, those employees would have worked more than 111,500 overtime hours by the end of September — an 18 percent increase over last year.

The additional overtime worked — along with the hiring and training of 56 new legal administrative specialists to process more claims, and Lean Six Sigma-driven process reforms. OPM has cut its backlog of unprocessed claims by 40 percent, from 61,108 in January 2012 to 36,603 in March 2013. Once new employees were hired and fully trained last summer, their productivity surpassed the agency’s expectations and helped it partly weather a massive buyout-driven spike in retirements this year.

Most notably, the average time to process a new retirement claim has plunged since last year. In August 2012, Zawodny said in an interview with Federal Times that it took 145 days on average to process a new retirement claim. OPM said in an email that is now down to almost half that — roughly 77 days. That had OPM within striking distance of reaching the 60-day goal Berry wanted OPM to hit by July 2013.

But now, overtime has ground to a halt, and OPM does not know when — or if — it will return.

Joseph Beaudoin, national president of the National Active and Retired Federal Employees Association, said OPM’s progress is certain to start slipping away.

“The [60-day] goal was very reachable,” Beaudoin said. “Now, they’re not going to be able to do it. The [backlog] numbers are going to increase. It will take longer. It’s very disappointing. And a lot of people out there will be angry, because they’re not going to get their annuities on time.”

Zawodny, who was unavailable for an interview, said in his blog post that OPM will provide monthly updates on how the overtime cuts are affecting pension processing.

OPM also reduced its call center hours by nearly three hours each weekday to save money. ■

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