The federal employee retirement backlog shot back up in January, snapping a four-month streak of steadily shrinking caseloads and indicating the government still has trouble getting a handle on its system for processing annuities.

Nearly 13,000 people applied for retirement in January, matching the usual record-high number the Office of Personnel Management receives at the beginning of each calendar year. Traditionally, the retirement claims surge culminates in winter and case workers work through it well into spring.

Last month, the Office of Personnel Management processed roughly 6,400 cases while intaking almost twice that. The overall inventory was 46% higher in January than December. And while processing times again improved last month after steadily quickening, it remains to be seen how the influx will impact speeds in the coming months.

Despite the increases, fewer employees overall retired in 2023 than 2022, 2021 and 2020.

OPM has acknowledged but not yet granted Federal Times requests for an interview on what the agency is doing to get through peak retirement season. On Feb. 8, however, the office unveiled a video summarizing the retirement process and pointing feds toward resources to help demystify it.

“This is part of OPM’s efforts to improve its customer experience and make the process simpler and more transparent,” according to the agency.

Other efforts to continually improve the process include updated guides on tax information, tips for avoiding common retirement mistakes, videos walking retirees through using, an experimental chatbot to answer frequently asked questions and a limited pilot of an online retirement application with the Small Business Administration and four departments within the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Still, a Nov. 15 watchdog report issued by the inspector general said the office was still stymied by many of the same IT and modernization challenges the agency received criticism for in recent years by Congress.

“Many federal employees look forward to the start of their retirement after years of public service,” the inspector general reported. “Many also rely on receiving the retirement benefits they earned to remain financially stable while they are no longer working. It is imperative for the federal retirement process to be timely and effective.”

In its response, OPM said its looking at initiatives to accept e-applications and reject error-ridden ones digitally. The office is looking at identifying funding for that beginning this fiscal year.

Managers also meet weekly to discuss bottlenecks, OPM said in the report.

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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