Retirement claims filed by federal employees at the Office of Personnel Management have been increasing by about 10 percent annually and appear on track to go up by that much again this year.
"All that pent-up retirement stuff is indeed beginning to happen," Stephen C. Benowitz, an associate director at OPM, said in an interview. OPM's workload, he predicted, "will keep increasing for a number of years" as the baby-boom generation leaves government service.
To help it cope with the rising workload, OPM had drawn up plans to purchase technology that will automate services currently performed manually and to shift from the use of paper personnel files to digital records. The project, known as retirement systems modernization, should speed payments of full pensions to retirees.
The project will likely be one of several issues that will face Linda M. Springer, named by President Bush in March to become OPM director. Springer, who previously served as controller in the Office of Management and Budget, is scheduled for a confirmation hearing today before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.
Springer, who will take the reins from OPM acting director Dan G. Blair if confirmed by the Senate, will be confronted with other issues, including federal union objections to the Bush administration's efforts to overhaul federal workplace rules.
Some of the more tricky issues facing OPM include how to address workforce morale at the departments of Defense and Homeland Security as they jettison the General Schedule and replace it with performance-based pay systems; how to extend those new personnel models to the rest of the government; and how to ensure that new pay and performance rules for federal executives are working as intended.
Springer, if confirmed, also will oversee the rollout of a new dental and vision benefit for federal employees next year. She will be under pressure to find ways to cut the time and cost of background checks and security clearances for the federal workforce.
Like many political appointees, Springer will be inheriting projects and policies developed by previous OPM directors. The retirement systems upgrade is one of those projects, dating to about 1997.
Its importance, to some degree, is a product of its size. OPM pays more than $52 billion per year in retirement benefits to about 2.4 million retirees and their survivors.
The project, when completed, should mesh with separate Bush administration efforts to consolidate payrolls and create an electronic human resources system that can track workers from their first day on the job to their last.
Lorraine Dettman, the retirement project's chief, said she hopes that "by 2007 we will be very close to achieving the kind of modernization goals we have been looking for." Although the project's costs have not been determined, she said costs should be less than the original estimate of $300 million.
Agencies notify OPM when employees retire, and the notification sets off a search for personnel records stored in tunnels of an old mine in Pennsylvania. The so-called file rooms are stacked with five-drawer cabinets, usually two high, stuffed with personnel records. OPM employees retrieve employee records, calculate an interim retirement payment and enter the data into a computer system.
Typically, an employee covered by the Federal Employees Retirement System waits 85 to 90 days before the final pay determination is made, and employees under the older Civil Service Retirement System wait about 10 days less.
But some retirees report waiting several months to receive their full pension payment and question why. Benowitz said people waiting longer than six months "are exceptions rather than the rule" and usually have complicated work histories that include switches among civil service retirement systems.
OPM recently finished training 25 new staff members to work on retirement cases, giving the agency about 400 employees qualified to process most types of pension claims. About 102,000 retirement cases were filed with OPM in fiscal 2004.
Please join me for a discussion of federal employee and retiree issues at noon today on Federal Diary Live at www.washingtonpost.com.