Although he retired from the U.S. Postal Service seven months ago, John Griffin of Pittsford, N.Y., is still waiting for the official calculation of his government pension.
Since his retirement, Griffin has been receiving an interim pension payment, which provides monthly income but is usually less than what he is due, to protect the government from making overpayments.
"It is unconscionable," Griffin said of the delay in determining his correct annuity. "Fortunately, I'm not living hand-to-mouth. But I am sure there are other retirees who are not as fortunate."
Griffin is not alone in his wait for a full pension payment. About 102,000 retirement cases were filed with the Office of Personnel Management in fiscal 2004, an increase of 13 percent from the previous year. Overall, OPM's retirement processing workload has jumped 25 percent in two years.
About 23,000 cases are in the pipeline, a bigger than normal backlog, OPM officials said.
The crush of claims seems certain to continue. About half of the 1.8 million federal employees will be eligible for regular or early retirement in the next five years. Although analysts predict that many will keep working, it's likely that the ranks of federal retirees -- about 2.3 million -- will rise in the coming decade.
Griffin spent 27 years with the Postal Service, delivering mail, clerking and performing other jobs. He was initially covered by the old Civil Service Retirement System, then switched to the Federal Employees Retirement System, created in 1984.
When the Postal Service, which has been trying to cut operating costs for the past two years, offered "early outs" at his office, Griffin, 57, took one.
That was in February. Wondering why his claim was moving slowly, Griffin said, he made two telephone calls to OPM during the summer but got little response. "They said, 'It is not unusual,' " he recalled.
But in the computer age, Griffin said, OPM should be able to calculate a full pension quickly. "They must have actuaries that can do this within two weeks," he said.
Stephen C. Benowitz, an OPM associate director who oversees retirement services provided former government employees, said OPM's long-term goal is to process claims in two weeks, as Griffin suggests.
OPM has asked for vendors to provide proposals that would create "an electronic environment" of automated payrolls and personnel processing, Benowitz said. But it may take two years to bring on line some parts of the computer project, he said.
For the short term, OPM is adding staff to process paper records. Three months ago, OPM hired 25 people to help process claims, and they are about halfway through training. They will join about 230 employees who do claims processing and will help "work through the backlog and get the numbers down to a more reasonable level," Benowitz said.
OPM expects agencies to submit retirement packages on their employees within 30 days of the employee's departure. In agencies, about 90 percent of the paperwork is pulled out of file cabinets, and if documents are missing, the hunt can slow a case.
Once all the records are at OPM, the agency usually approves an interim payment within a week. But calculating the correct annuity takes longer. And OPM has found that adjudicating a FERS retirement takes more time than those under the older CSRS program.
Currently, the average processing time is about 97 days for a FERS case and about 73 days for a CSRS case. That's about two weeks longer for FERS and a week longer for CSRS than envisioned under OPM's current goals for retirement processing.
"Our timing on these things is an issue," Benowitz said. "We understand that, and we are addressing that."
Speaking of retirement checks, the government will announce the 2005 cost-of-living adjustment for federal retirees in mid-October.
Based on Labor Department data collected through August, federal retirees are on course for a 2.6 percent increase next year, according to the National Association of Retired Federal Employees. The COLA projection could change, depending on inflation trends in September.