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OPM continues to whittle away at pension backlog

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The Office of Personnel Management has cut its backlog of unprocessed pension claims by 21 percent in the five months since it unveiled a new strategy to fix the longstanding problem.

According to statistics posted online today, OPM cut the backlog by 1,150 cases in June, bringing the backlog down to 48,323 unprocessed claims. In January, when OPM announced its plan to fix its problematic pension process, the inventory was 61,108.

But even though OPM has made progress so far in 2012, the size of the backlog is still far greater than it was in October 2010, when OPM Director John Berry pledged to fix the problem. That month — when Federal Times first reported that many retirees were waiting six months to a year for pensions that were often half of what they were owed — OPM said it had 38,400 cases backlogged.

Still, OPM is making progress. The backlog has now fallen for five months straight. And OPM processed 8,964 cases in June, about the same amount as it processed in May. That is more than the 8,500 claims it expected to process in June.

And OPM received 7,814 retirement claims last month, slightly fewer than the 8,000 it expected.

For more information on what OPM is doing to fix this decades-old thorn in its side, read our exclusive interview with Associate Director of Retirement Services Ken Zawodny here, and our original story on OPM’s new strategy here.

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OPM declares unscheduled leave, telework for DC area; offices open tomorrow

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Although wide swaths of the Washington DC area remain powerless and sweltering after Friday night’s derecho storm, the federal government will be open tomorrow, the Office of Personnel Management just said.

However, non-emergency essential employees in the DC area will have the option of taking unscheduled leave or unscheduled telework if they choose, OPM said.

(But speaking for myself, I can’t imagine why anybody without power would want to stay home this week. Even the worst job sounds pretty good when outdoor temperatures are hovering near 100 and the office has AC.)

You can check Dominion Power’s work schedule here. If you’re without power, we hope you stay cool and hydrated. And remember, if you come up on a powerless traffic light, treat it like a four-way stop sign.


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Pension processing picks back up in May

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The Office of Personnel Management saw a hiccup in its pension processing efforts in April, when the number of claims processed dropped to 8,028. That was slightly below the 8,300 claims it expected to process that month, and noticeably below the 12,386 claims it processed in March.

But May brought slightly better news for OPM. According to monthly stats released today, the number of claims processed in May jumped back up to 9,066 — about 500 more than OPM anticipated it would process last month. This helped bring the size of the backlog down to 49,473 — about 5,100 fewer cases than it expected to have by the end of May.

And for the second month in a row, the number of retirement claims actually received by OPM was lower than anticipated. OPM expected 8,000 feds to retire last month, but only got 7,523 retirement applications.

Federal Times also reported earlier today that 18 percent of retirement applications last year had errors that then had to be fixed by OPM.

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Retirement claims slow in April

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For several months, we’ve been tracking a disturbing increase in federal retirements — one which both complicated the Office of Personnel Management’s efforts to fix the pension process and suggests many feds have had it with the proposed pay and benefit cuts. But OPM’s latest stats show a surprising drop in the number of feds retiring.

OPM said it received 6,616 retirement claims in April. That’s 17 percent less than the 8,000 it expected to receive last month, and 15 percent less than the 7,773 feds who retired in April 2011. Up until this point, retirement claims for the first three months of 2012 were up roughly 11 percent from the same period last year. But when April’s numbers are factored in, that increase drops almost in half, to nearly 6 percent.

It remains to be seen whether April is a blip, or the start of a trend in which retirements slow back down to a more manageable pace.

The rest of April’s stats contained some mixed news for OPM. The number of claims processed dropped from 12,386 in March to 8,028 in April. That was slightly less than the 8,300 OPM expected to process last month.

But there was good news: Despite the slight decline in productivity, the decreased retirement claims helped OPM cut its backlog from 52,274 to 51,016 cases. OPM is now way ahead of the 55,078-case backlog it expected to have in April.

I’ve asked OPM for their thoughts on what might have caused April’s changes and will update this blog when they respond.

UPDATE: OPM just sent me the following statement from Associate Director Ken Zawodny:

The first pillar of our strategic plan is the most simple and most urgent:  adding more people to the claims adjudication process.  The new hires from January 2012 have completed their initial training and now require coaching and mentoring as they begin to process cases. This is an expected part of the training program and requires the most experienced and effective LAS’s to be coaches and mentors in addition to processing retirement claims. Our front line employees split their time in April between processing cases, training the new hires and working with Navy Lean Six Sigma Team to improve the adjudication process, especially for more complex cases. Strategic investments of time and expertise will continue into May.  To date, we have processed 39,116 retirement claims compared to the 32,900 that we estimated having done at this time.

As Director Berry stated in the Strategic Plan for Retirement Services, it is our goal to eliminate the current backlog in 18 months so that 90 percent of retirees will receive their full annuity payments within 60 days of retirement by July 2013.

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More than 1,200 takers for IRS buyout/early retirement offers

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Take it for what it’s worth, but here’s a data point to start the week: Since fiscal 2011, about 1,268 IRS employees have taken advantage of early retirement and buyout offers. That number amounts to a bit more than 1 percent of the agency’s workforce, which totaled almost 91,000 as of December, according to official figures posted online.

Federal Times received the information under a Freedom of Information Act request filed earlier this year after attempts to obtain the data from the IRS’ public affairs office in Washington were unsuccessful.

The mini-exodus is part of a looming human capital challenge facing the tax-collection agency, according to J. Russell George, Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration. About one-third of the IRS’ overall workforce is eligible for retirement in the next five years, George said. Among executives, that ratio is more than two-thirds, George said in prepared testimony at a House Oversight and Government Reform subcommittee hearing this month.

“Replacing these employees provides an opportunity for reshaping the IRS workforce,” George said, “but also represents a significant challenge since many departing employees possess unique skills and institutional knowledge that will be difficult to replace.”

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Is telework increasing? Who knows?

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The federal government wants to increase the amount federal employees telework, and even passed a law to make it easier in December 2010.

But finding out whether that’s actually happening is tricky. Because the metrics used to measure telework are continually shifting, it’s probably going to be a few more years before we know whether things are actually improving, according to a new report from the Government Accountability Office.

GAO said that for years, agencies have used different methods to collect telework data, leaving those statistics inconsistent and unreliable. After the 2010 Telework Enhancement Act was passed, the Office of Personnel Management sought to fix that problem by revising its 2011 “data call.” That revision sought to standardize definitions of key terms and reporting methods, added more questions to make the surveys more reliable, and shortened the time frame during which telework participation is measured.

But GAO said those changes mean that the data measured in September and October 2011 will be so different it can’t possibly be compared to prior years’ results.

What’s more, agencies are still increasing their use of automated data collection, GAO said, and OPM might change its survey methods even more before it starts collecting 2012 data. That means the 2011 data might be essentially worthless too, GAO said.

“OPM officials anticipate that telework data will be more reliable next year,” GAO said.

OPM told GAO that it would make it clear in its first mandated report to Congress this June that the 2011 data has its limitations and keep trying to improve data collection, as GAO recommended. But OPM also noted that data collection remains inadequate at the agency level, which it is trying to address through training.

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CFC spending controversy: What do you think?

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Federal Times would like to hear from you regarding the $1.1 million in controversial expenses made by the Washington-area Combined Federal Campaign.

As we first reported last night, the Office of Personnel Management’s inspector general criticized a string of expenses made by Global Impact between 2007 and 2009, including:

  • $11,315 for a night out for 600 at a Washington Nationals game;
  • $1,500 to hire Howard University’s jazz band for a conference;
  • $1,159 for a nighttime tour of Washington;
  • $680 for chair massages; and
  • $102,503 for meals over three years.

How does this make you feel? Does it shake your confidence in how the federal government’s massive charity drive is run? Will it make you think twice about donating to, or volunteering for, the CFC? Or do you think the revelations are no big deal? Write me at slosey@federaltimes.com. If you’d like to share your thoughts anonymously, that’s fine.

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Snow coming to DC; OPM grants unscheduled leave, telework

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A minor snowstorm is headed for the Washington area this evening. Some are expecting the snow (and possibly rain) to snarl traffic tonight, so the Office of Personnel Management decided to allow federal employees to take unscheduled leave or unscheduled telework, if they want, to get them off the roads early.


OPM declares 11 am delayed opening for DC; freezing rain on the way

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The Washington area is expected to get hit by freezing rain this evening, and it’s going to mean a late start for federal employees Monday. The Office of Personnel Management this evening sent out a notice that said the government will open at 11 a.m. tomorrow, and told feds to stay off the roads until 9 a.m. Feds will be granted an excused absence for their delayed arrival tomorrow.

OPM is also giving feds the option to use unscheduled leave or unscheduled telework — but if you choose to telework, you have to start working at your normal time.

Emergency employees will have to show up on time, unless directed otherwise.

UPDATE 8 PM: The National Weather Service forecasts tonight’s freezing rain will result in accumulations of “a trace to less than a tenth of an inch.” NWS expects “light icing on roadways and elevated surfaces will make traveling hazardous,” not to mention slippery sidewalks. So it doesn’t sound like the end of the world, but we all know how these slippery roads can lead to trouble if drivers don’t use caution.

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Monster.com to USAJobs users: Come on in, the water’s fine

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Isn't it ironic? Don'tcha think?

The Office of Personnel Management’s attempt to bring USAJobs.gov back in house and shut out Monster.com ironically* may end up driving job listings back to Monster.

Until recently, Monster.com was in charge of running the federal government’s job listing website, but the company lost its gig when OPM insourced the site and designed its own new version. But USAJobs 3.0 is still plagued with problems, more than a week after its relaunch.

Today, Monster.com announced that it will offer free job postings over the next 30 days to federal agencies that need to fill vacancies.

“Despite our nation’s current economic challenges, federal agencies have jobs they need to fill quickly,” Monster Worldwide CEO Sal Ianuzzi said. “At the same time there are qualified job seekers actively looking for those positions. As a public service, we’re offering these free postings to ease the burden during the transition and to help connect federal agency employers to qualified talent.”

Avue Technologies — whose CEO Linda Brooks Rix is no fan of OPM — applauded Monster’s decision, and said it should offer free postings indefinitely. Last week — one day after USAJobs 3.0 went online and when the problems were first starting to surface — Avue announced it would make its Avue Central platform free of charge indefinitely.

Meanwhile, OPM is still scrambling to obtain and install new servers it hopes will allow USAJobs to handle the unprecedented traffic since its relaunch. Yesterday OPM Director John Berry said he’s pushing agencies to extend their non-emergency job vacancies by three weeks, to accommodate users who are having trouble getting on the site.

* This is not one of those rain-on-a-wedding-day examples of pseudo-irony. This qualifies as a bona fide example of situational irony, where someone’s actions result in the exact opposite of what was expected or intended.

UPDATE: OPM just released a new statement from Associate Director Angela Bailey, in which she said OPM has successfully added three servers to improve the site’s capacity. This, as well as some other added hardware, should improve USAJobs’ search engine and job posting functions.

Some users are annoyed that they’re having to reset their passwords, but Bailey said the extra steps are necessary to safeguard applicants’ personal information.

“USAJobs 3.0 continues to make steady progress with the new site since its implementation last week,” Bailey said. “As of Wednesday afternoon, over 180,000 applications are successfully submitted through the new site, 38,067 in the last 24-hour period. Technical teams are working hard to ensure these numbers continue to increase.”

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