Those applying to retire from the federal government this month should be prepared to wait.

The Office of Personnel Management received nearly twice as many retirement claims in January as it did the month before, boosting the pile of unprocessed paperwork that had decreased for four straight months.

Average retirement processing times also shot up in January after falling in December. Progress on the backlog of claims appears to have been undone as the government works through peak retirement season.

The winter months are a popular time for federal workers to retire, and this year is no exception. Historically, a surge of applications come through OPM’s office between January and February, with the increased workload lasting until mid-April.

OPM, which administers the federal retirement program, has been working to reduce its processing time and retirement claim inventory backlog for years.

Roughly 24,858 applications for retirement were waiting to be processed at the end of the last month, almost doubling the inventory goal. The agency said it processed about 1,400 more cases in January than December.

More than 114,500 federal workers retired in the government fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, up from about 97,000 the year before, according to data. That’s the largest retirement exodus since 2013.

The rush to the exits may have helped lengthen average monthly processing times for retirement claims which surpassed the three-month line to 92 days in September, up from 87 in August. They improved only slightly to 87 days in August, well above the office’s goal of 60 days.

As one in three federal employees will be eligible to retire this year, the graying of the federal workforce adds strain on OPM’s management of retirements. The two-month processing goal has not been met in at least two years despite prodding from Congress, federal employee unions and the Government Accountability Office.

“We understand OPM may be struggling with pandemic-related disruptions and that there are dedicated public servants at OPM RS who recognize the problems,” said National Active and Retired Federal Employees Association in a statement in June. “But they must prevent the situation from deteriorating further and start making real progress to improve and modernize their processes to better serve those who spent careers serving their nation.”

GAO identified several causes for the slog in processing, including the continuing reliance on paper-based applications and manual processing. OPM has said that developing an electronic application form and an electronic system to store retirement information is part of its strategic plan, but failed to provide estimated time frames or costs for the initiatives as of 2019.

According to the office’s budget justification for 2023, OPM will pilot a digital retirement system that will allow federal employees to retire completely online.

OPM also requested more than $225 million in salary and expense funds for personnel and non-personnel resources in its budget, which includes about $19 million for IT modernizations specifically.

Notably, from September 2019 to 2020, OPM employment decreased by more than half. As of 2021, numbers have still not risen to the initial peak in 2019.

Incomplete applications adding to OPM backlog

Also contributing to delays are incomplete applications that require backtracking. In up to 40% of applications, OPM is missing information needed to finalize processing.

To address understaffing issues, OPM’s actions have included using overtime pay and hiring additional staff. However, OPM does not measure overtime productivity or correlate overtime data with application processing data, GAO found.

Increased use of overtime pay during fiscal years 2013 to 2017 also failed to increase the number of applications processed despite being a common practice implemented by OPM during surge retirement periods.

OPM officials reported that hiring freezes, continuing resolutions and other budget constraints affected hiring numbers and created hiring delays over the past five fiscal years.

The office of Congresswoman Kay Granger, a Republican from Texas, cites data provided by OPM showing that in ideal cases, simple requests such as direct deposit requests can be generally handled within 30 days.

OPM counts processing time as the number of days starting when they receive the retirement application through final adjudication.

This story was updated on Feb. 24 to reflect the latest available data from OPM. Check back for future updates.

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.

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