The Office of Personnel Management on Monday retreated from its goal of ending a retirement-claims backlog this year, citing a loss of overtime hours and a spike in retirements as obstacles to the desired outcome.

In 2011, former OPM director John Berry, now the U.S. ambassador to Australia, laid out plans for reducing the average wait time from 156 days to 60 days by the end of this year. The agency said it had been on track meet its goal until the automatic spending cuts known as the sequester took their toll on progress.

(Wikimedia Commons) (Wikimedia Commons)

The average delay had dropped to 91 days at the end of July, but the decline stalled after April, when the agency eliminated overtime for processors and trimmed call-center hours as part of an effort to meet its cost-cutting targets.

Since OPM made that move, the number of processed claims has dropped precipitously, falling from about 14,000 in April to 8,000 in July, according to a progress report the agency released Monday.

An increase in Postal Service retirements at the start of the year added to the challenges, as the number of new claims skyrocketed from 5,000 in December to 22,000 in January, the agency said.

Nonetheless, OPM has nearly halved its number of outstanding claims, with the backlog dropping from 48,000 in late 2011 to about 27,000 as of July, according to the report.

The agency said it now expects to reduce the average wait time to 60 days by next summer. But the continued sequester and Congress’s troubles in coming up with a comprehensive spending plan could hinder that outcome.

“That’s something we’re keeping an eye on, to make sure we get the funding we need,” said OPM Associate Director for Retirement Services Ken Zawodny.

In a statement on Monday, the National Active and Retired Federal Employees association lamented the loss of overtime, describing it as one of the primary causes of the continuing backlog. “We, again, implore members of Congress to take notice of the very real effects that austerity budgeting is having on government services, including the ones on which our career civil servants rely,” the group said.

OPM’s January 2012 plan for dealing with the backlog involved hiring 76 new specialists to handle customer service and legal administration, increasing overtime hours and improving some of its processes for dealing with cases. That plan remains in effect.

In 2011, the claims backlog reached crisis levels, with the number of outstanding cases rising to more than 60,000. Retired federal workers during that time reported processing delays of up to a year or more in some cases.

While waiting, applicants generally receive a fraction of the benefits they are entitled to.

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