WASHINGTON — Employees at the Department of the Treasury have issued an urgent plea for agency leadership: please hire more workers for the U.S. savings bond program.
On Nov. 1, the agency announced its biannual interest rate for Series I savings bonds of 6.89% until May. Though lower than the rate preceding it, the interest is still favorable compared with other investment vehicles, and savings bonds remain a desired financial asset for many Americans.
Employees within the department have said the continued demand, even amid falling rates, may add to already insurmountable workloads.
“The Bureau of Fiscal Service employees who work in Retail Securities Services are extremely worried about the persistent staff vacancies in their division, which is why NTEU Chapter 190 has filed a grievance,” said Tony Reardon, national president of the National Treasury Employees Union, in a statement to Federal Times.
As of Oct. 19, Reardon said by the union’s count, there were more than 30 vacant positions, and the agency had not replaced those employees, despite a growing backlog and increasing workload.
The Treasury has issued savings bonds since 1935 on the credit of the U.S, to raise funds for federal programs and operations. They have been a popular gift for grandchildren for generations, though most are now sold electronically.
A grievance filed in May by a local NTEU chapter highlighted understaffing within the agency’s customer service division of Retail Securities Services, which is located in West Virginia, and handles the issuance of savings bonds.
This cohort of federal workers has been tasked with meeting demand for Series I bonds, which come in denominations of $50, $100, $200, $500, and $1,000. Demand for the bonds has soared in the last two years as Americans sought to take advantage of the high interest and relative stability of fixed and inflation-adjusted rates.
The surging demand, coupled with positions within Retail Securities Services that have not been backfilled since the pandemic started and more employees being eligible for retirement, has led to a growing backlog of orders and complaints from the public and members of Congress, the union said.
Josh P., a TreasuryDirect user who requested not to use his last name, said he had been on hold with TreasuryDirect’s phone line for more than four hours to solve a problem that required less than five minutes of talking with an agent to sort out.
The day before, at 3:30 on a Thursday afternoon, he phoned in and received an automated message that there were already more callers waiting on hold than could be answered by the end of the business day.
He and others said once they got through to an agent, the service was swift and professional.
In June, responses to customer emails were taking five weeks to respond, according to the union.
“Middle management and the employees that are doing the work are absolute champions. I can’t be more proud of the work that they’re doing,” said Matthew Floyd, vice president of a local NTEU chapter, in an interview with Federal Times. “There’s just not enough of them.”
“Fiscal Service has more than doubled the number of agents available by phone, including shifting current employees to answering customer calls and other support functions,” said a Treasury spokesperson. “Fiscal Service has also invested in improvements to TreasuryDirect that allow for better self-service, while also providing improved information delivery and other process improvements.”
The backlog has also gotten the attention of Capitol Hill. The department has received numerous congressional inquiries about the slog, the union said.
Sen. Tim Kaine’s office confirmed it has heard from 10 Virginians on the issue. Rep. Gerry Connolly’s office also said it has fielded about half a dozen constituent inquiries.
“My office has helped constituents navigate the backlog of consumer requests at the Treasury Department,” said Rep. Connolly (D-Va.) in a statement. “The unprecedented surge of interest in Series I bonds and staffing shortages related to the COVID-19 pandemic have greatly lengthened response times and placed an unexpected burden on many individuals, whether they sought to purchase new bonds or redeem those which have matured.”
Efforts to modernize the savings bond have shifted operations to a digital platform, which some say have detracted from the program.
“A series of efficiency measures introduced in 2003 make these bonds less attractive and less accessible to savers,” said a report by Harvard University.
In 2012, paper savings bonds were no longer sold at financial institutions over the counter since electronic sales began in the 2000s.
Electronic savings bonds in Series EE and I became available through purchase in TreasuryDirect, which was first launched in 2004 and offered Americans a “one-stop shop for purchasing and redeeming savings bonds and other Treasury securities online,” according to the website.
NTEU’s Floyd said it can’t handle everything. Simple and common user requests like change of bank information automatically trigger a mandatory review by personnel, he said.
And in moments of frenzied interest spurred by favorable interest rates, the website has buckled under the demand. The Washington Post reported TreasuryDirect crashed the day after the Treasury Department announced that 9.62% interest rate on May 3.
In a follow-up report, it crashed again on Oct. 26, just days before the new rates were released.
It’s Americans’ interest and the work of remaining employees that are holding the savings bond program up, but its support staff is at a breaking point, Floyd said.
“My main concern is that if our agency does not handle this issue and get us staffed up, that it’s going to rise to the level of [Congress], and they’re the ones that can pull the plug on the program,” said Floyd.
Savings bond popularity pushing workloads
I-bond sales have been hitting record numbers in recent months and weeks. Even when rates fell this month, they are still at the third-highest level since they were sold in 1998.
In August, savings bond sales amounted to $2.25 billion, up from $106 million the same month a year before.
As of Aug. 30, $68.5 million paper Series I savings bonds were issued as part of tax refunds, an increase of 405% from the $16.9 million bonds issued over the same period last year, according to Treasury data.
The need to staff up is immediate and heightening, Floyd said, because many Americans may choose to reinvest come Jan. 1 since rates have stayed high. Not long after that, the nation’s tax season starts and bond-holders often request redemptions at that time, he said.
The local chapter has maintained that despite temporary fixes, permanent staffing solutions are necessary. Even when demand for I-bonds settles, new employees, like current employees, would still be needed to chip away at the excess inventory of cases.
Optimal workloads for an employee are considered to be about 82 pending cases at any given time. As of June, average caseloads for individual employees was more than 330, according to data compiled by the union.
The union filed a grievance in May, which alleged that earlier that month, agency officials had told the local chapter that there were no current plans to adjust retail services staffing.
“It is clear that there is adequate work in our agency to justify a budget to bring those duties back to federal employees where taxpayers and stakeholder can have greater oversight and transparency,” the grievance read.
Molly Weisner is a staff reporter for Federal Times where she covers labor, policy and contracting pertaining to the government workforce. She made previous stops at USA Today and McClatchy as a digital producer, and worked at The New York Times as a copy editor. Molly majored in journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.