(Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg)

Federal employees can help shorten the time it takes to process their applications for retirement benefits, long a sore point in the workforce, by preparing well in advance, the official overseeing that process has said.

“We strongly encourage all prospective retirees to start taking a look at their entire work history long before they want to retire,”  said Ken Zawodny, Office of Personnel Management associate director for retirement services.

Employees should make sure their work records are complete and accurate, with special focus on potential complications such as claiming federal retirement credit for military service time, he said in a conference call with reporters.

“If I were to retire a year from now, I’m behind the power curve. I should have been looking at my records four, five, six years ago, ensuring that there’s no missing service in there, that my [human resources office] has all of the information that they need to have.”

Employees also should start early to think through their options and desires regarding insurance coverage, Thrift Savings Plan withdrawals and other benefits issues, he added.

He said that many of the cases that take the longest are delayed by back and forth with the retiree as the OPM seeks further information it needs. “These are cases that tell stories about individuals’ careers throughout 30 or 40 years of their life,” he said.

Zawodny made his remarks as OPM announced a policy of reporting in greater detail on processing time. That for years has been the focus of complaints by new retirees, congressional oversight, and OPM initiatives involving increased staffing and new technology.

Data released Thursday show for example that new retirees have about a three in four chance that the OPM will finish processing their application within 60 days of receiving it, but that the agency hasn’t hit its goal of finishing 90 percent of applications in that much time in any of the past 12 months.

Over that period, OPM has reduced the number of applications pending by about 1,500, to about 12,600 as of October.

When federal employees retire, their agencies send the applications along with supporting records to OPM, which calculates their annuity benefits according to formulas involving service time and their highest three consecutive salary years.

Retirees receive about 80-85 percent of the estimated monthly annuity until the exact figure is determined; they then receive a payment for the difference.

However, in some cases, the interim amount is much lower, increasing the chances that the wait for full benefits will cause a financial hardship. For example, Zawodny said, if the retiree is subject to a divorce court order mandating a benefit to a former spouse, OPM typically will pay only about half of the estimated full benefit while it examines the order. The government doesn’t want to overpay and then have to collect from the retiree, he said.

“We advise soon-to-be retirees to have at least three months of savings on which to live while their claim is being processed,” National Active and Retired Federal Employees Association legislative director Jessica Klement said. NARFE also advises employees to prepare early and make sure their applications are complete and include all needed documentation, she said.

Complaints from new retirees about the waiting time have decreased recently and “we haven’t heard from many recent retirees who are experiencing financial hardship, but that may just mean those in this situation aren’t members of NARFE,” she said in an e-mail.

Zawodny said that some of the wait a new retiree experiences happens before the OPM even begins its work. For example, agencies don’t send OPM certain information until the end of a two-week payroll cycle, which could mean a wait of nearly that long from the start, depending on when in the cycle the employee retired.

New retirees can go online to track the progress of their applications. If the processing time causes a financial hardship for the retiree, Zawodny said, the OPM can assign an application high priority — although it can only do that for so many.

In recent years, OPM has reported each month on the number of claims it received, how many it processed, the number pending, and the percentage processed within 60 days up to that point in the year.

It now additionally is reporting the percentage of cases closed each month that were finished within that time and the average number of days applications were in process — both when the 60-day goal is met and when it isn’t. Those are “probably the two key numbers” of interest to employees and retirees, Zawodny said.

Over the last 12 months, the percentage of applications finalized within 60 days ranged from 86 percent for those closed in March to just 26 percent in April; the October figure was 74 percent. Average time of cases closed per month varied between 33 and 49 days, with the October figure being 38 days.

When the 60-day deadline isn’t met, the average processing time ranged from 74 to 107 days, with cases closed in October having averaged 86 days.

In that period OPM has received between 4,100 and 18,600 cases per month — a total of about 96,100 — and finalized between 5,800 and 10,400 a month — a total of about 97,600. The number pending never will fall to zero, Zawodny said, since applications come in each day.