After more than a year of investigation, congressional auditors have concluded what many federal workers suspected all along: You don't have to be rich to retire from Uncle Sam, but it helps.

A new report by the General Accounting Office says that Federal and postal employes have to wait too long after they retire before they start getting annuity checks from the government. GAO, which made the study at the request of Sen. John Warner (R-Va.), says that in March 1981, just after the Reagan administration took over, the Office of Personnel Management had a backlog of nearly 75,000 retirement and death benefit claims and that many people have to wait as much as eight months after retirement before they start getting payments.

Warner got into the act because many of his constitutents are federal workers or retirees, and because a lot of them live within a 20-cent teletphone call of his Capitol Hill office. Other Washington area legislators report that a major chunk of their workload involves tracking down retirement checks for ex-bureaucrats who often have to borrow money, or dip into savings to make ends meet while their old agencies or OPM process their retirement claims.

Warner, who is after all a Republican, says the new GOP management of the Office of Peronnel Management is taking steps to shorten the lag between retirement and retirement checks. The GAO report, which covered the two-year period ending January of this year, said OPM officials at that time were "unwilling to state when acceptable settlement times will again be achieved" in processing claims, and getting those all important retirement and death benefit checks in the mail.

GAO says that in the study period -- during which time the old Civil Service Commission was abolished and reorganized into the OPM -- the personnel agency "allowed its claims settlement staff to go from 184 examiners down to only 51." When the OPM was born our of the old commission, many workers took advantage of early retirement options and the office lost many experienced officials, supervisors and claims examiners.

GAO said it takes up to three years before claims examiners -- who check retirement data sent in by agencies and certify the amount of the annuity due retirees -- are really up to snuff. (Last year, after this column reported a backlog of 30,000 claims cases and highlighted a number of verified "horror stories" from readers, OPM began beefing up its claims examiner staff, and rehired a number of retired claims examiners for 90 days to help clear up a number of problem cases.

OPM isn't always to blame for the delays. Often agencies are slow -- some slower than others -- in forwarding the necessary paperwork on retirees. And many federal workers who have military service, have been in and out of government or who may owe the government money, have complicated careers to figure out. Be that as it may, GAO, Warner, OPM and most other people say the delays are too long. While the sins outlined are pre-Reagan, OPM es expected to respond to some of the GAO charges, and we will have their side and explanation when it is available.