The Office of Personnel Management is processing retirement claims by federal workers at a record clip after a wave of government employee departures last year and understaffing caused a massive backlog.

The federal government’s HR department processed more claims than it received last month and shaved 11% off its inventory from March to April. There’s still a ways to go as the backlog remains about 7,000 cases above the goal.

It’s the third straight month of record-fast processing times, a pace that had not been achieved in at least two years, according to the data.

After several months that showed steady improvements in reducing the backlog, a wave of 12,000 new claims were filed in January, indicative of the peak retirement season OPM usually encounters each year. Unlike past years, OPM seemed ready this time.

The office’s ability to maintain operations from February onward is telling, considering a report by the Government Accountability Office said OPM receives a surge of applications starting in mid-January and continuing into the spring.

There are more than $83 billion worth of annual annuity payments made to nearly 2.7 million federal beneficiaries. Agency HR and payroll offices create retirement application packages, which are then sent to OPM for processing.

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.

As a result, OPM’s retirement backlog rose to its highest levels since 2014, according to its inspector general. The agency’s 2022-2026 Strategic Plan “does not contain a specific goal related to retirement services’ case processing,” though parts of the previous plan noted a goal to bring processing times down to 60 days or less, a benchmark that is yet to be consistently met, the OIG said in a report.

“Legacy systems and manual processes that we have identified in previous ... reports continue to contribute to customer service issues by increasing the backlog of cases and long processing times that make interim payments necessary,” the OIG report said.

Inadequate staffing levels is also an issue for the agency, especially during high-demand times.

About a dozen senators sent a bipartisan letter in April asking questions of OPM regarding its effort to staff up and improve processing times after constituents complained about waiting for their benefits.

In the letter, lawmakers said they’re aware of at least one case that has been in processing for fifteen months.

So, what can retirees do?

“Filling out the retirement claim forms correctly drastically improves a retirement packet’s chances of getting processed quickly,” wrote Benjamin Derge, a financial planner.

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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