Office of Personnel Management Director John Berry wins praise for his honesty and openness about his agency’s failure to develop a well-functioning retirement system for federal employees.
But he shouldn’t count on that lasting long.
At a Senate federal workforce subcommittee hearing Wednesday, Chairman Daniel K. Akaka (D-Hawaii) said Berry’s “willingness to be held accountable and his resolve to reform broken processes are encouraging.”
Valerie C. Melvin, author of a Government Accountability Office report that cites serious weaknesses with OPM’s program, said, “I think it’s very commendable that the director has taken ownership of the problem.”
And National Active and Retired Federal Employees Association President Joseph A. Beaudoin applauded “OPM for so honestly recognizing the problem and for developing a strategic plan to solve it.”
Berry’s directness is refreshing in a town that often thrives on avoiding blame and making things obscure. That’s not his way.
“The current delays in retirement processing are unacceptable,” he said right at the top of his testimony.
Yet, for the retirees who wait many months to get a full annuity, “unacceptable” might be too mild. And Congress is increasingly anxious to see real improvement, not just plans to make things better, in a retirement program that does not treat federal employees with the respect they deserve.
Berry does have a “Strategic Plan for Retirement Service” that he developed after the House federal workforce subcommittee took OPM to the woodshed in November. It says “the current team at OPM recognizes the need for urgent action.”
Berry said some of the retirement problems are due to staff positions that were not filled after a failed Bush administration attempt to computerize the system. But the problem has his name on it now.
And if by “urgent” OPM means the 18 months that Berry said it will take to eliminate the agency’s backlog of retirement claims, which now stands at 62,000, that’s not fast enough for Sen. Mark R. Warner.
The Virginia Democrat is not a member of the subcommittee, but he asked to participate in the hearing because his office has been hit with a load of complaints from some of the 130,000 federal retirees that he said live in the state.
“You’ve got some pretty upset folks” in Virginia, Warner told Berry. The senator mentioned a case that his staff was working on before the hearing began, in which “a federal retiree waited 17 months” to get the full annuity due.
Of the plan to get things right in 18 months, Warner said: “I just don’t think that’s acceptable. That should not be the level of service we expect from our government.”
And Melvin’s report says that Berry’s goal to eliminate the backlog in 18 months “represents a substantial reduction from the agency’s fiscal year 2009 retirement modernization goal to accurately process 99 percent of cases within 30 days.”
Warner’s example of a disgruntled retiree does not stand alone.
Beaudoin said NARFE has received hundreds of complaints from its members. “For example, in the past two weeks:
“Jennifer Ortiz told us: ‘I retired on December 31, 2010, and received my first full annuity payment on September 1, 2011. Up until then, I was receiving interim payments of $17 per month.’
“John Tolleris told us: ‘I retired from the U.S. Treasury Department on May 31, 2011, after 32 years of service. While OPM started paying my interim pension on July 1, it still has not yet ‘adjudicated’ my pension case, and I’m currently receiving about 65 percent of the payment my agency had estimated. I’m now expecting to receive my eighth ‘diet’ annuity payment next month with no indication of when I will ever receive my full payment or ever-growing back payment.’
“Craig Boehne told us: ‘I retired from the FAA on May 31, 2011. I continue to receive partial interim checks at about 55-60 percent gross of what I am entitled.’ ”
One witness didn’t have anything good to say about Berry. George Nesterczuk, an OPM official during the Bush administration who has a reputation among union leaders as a conservative ideologue, lobbed one criticism after another at Berry.
“The recent lack of leadership from OPM on retirement system modernization has left agencies with retiring employees to fend for themselves,” he said.
Of course, a significant part of the problem with the retirement program is the incomplete information the agencies send to OPM for processing. Warner waved a document showing that the State Department had the highest error rate in June: 50 percent.
At the other end of the spectrum was NASA, with an error rate of zero.
Moral of the story: Work for NASA.