The Office of Personnel Management is hoping its retirement guide will help employees estimate when they can expect payments and promote better transparency of the process for soon-to-be annuitants.
Applying for retirement, many federal employees say, is an unwieldy process. And without a case management system, OPM lacks a way to provide real-time alerts, often leaving retirees in the dark about where their application stands as time goes by.
“That’s something we were asking for,” Lori Amos, deputy associate director for OPM Retirement Services, told reporters on Monday.
In the meantime, the three-page resource consolidates frequently asked questions, lays out each stage of the claims processing timeline and estimates how long each step takes. The guide also provides tips on ensuring applicants fill out forms properly because if they don’t, it takes longer. Last month, about 24% of retirement cases governmentwide had an error.
“Right now, this information is available to them, but it’s in various places on the website,” said Amos. “What we wanted to do was present a tool to the community so that they would have information that they need right at their fingertips, so that we can start to manage expectations.”
The guide describes what happens in the days, weeks and months that go into processing an individual retirement case. It takes, about three to five months days to get that first full payout, with the longest part of the process happening under OPM’s roof when it calculates annuity.
The efficiency of this system has been a point of concern for lawmakers who sent a letter to OPM Director Kiran Ahuja last month, inquiring about what the office was planning to do about “excessive delays federal retirees in our states are facing as they wait to obtain their hard-earned retirement benefits.”
OPM did not immediately respond to a question about whether that letter had been addressed.
However, the last three months show OPM has processed cases at a record clip, thanks to tiger teams that the office has stood up and shifting of resources to aging cases that have been in-process for more than 180 days.
“A lot of the cases that are aged cases, it’s because of missing information or a missing signature or a form that wasn’t included in the original packet,” Amos said. “It’s not for all of the cases, but for the majority of the cases that may be aged, we were taking a very active role and making sure that we get those packages healthy, get those packages complete and get them processed.”
Amos also attributed improvements to using overtime and training to backfill positions quickly when vacancies arise. The agency has also been working on a hiring strategy, she said.
Knowing retirements are a priority, OPM is requesting a 2024 budget that can support an overall increase of 368 full-time employees over fiscal 2023, including for the enhancement of retirement services.
Amos said in particular, OPM needs staff who “trigger” cases, or route them for payment.
The office is also asking for money to fully digitize its retirement system. The office began developing a limited online retirement application in 2020, but to scale it, the office is requesting additional funds in 2024 as part of the “necessarily multi-year journey.”
Amos said her department is also looking at how it can redesign forms so that they are user-friendly and lead to fewer errors, noting that the life insurance form in particular is linked to frequent mistakes.
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.