The Office of Personnel Management headquarters in Washington. (Shawn Thew/EPA)

When a bipartisan group of House members asked for an independent examination of the government’s federal workforce retirement program, they said staffers deserve “a transition to retirement that is efficient, timely, and uncomplicated.”

A new report indicates the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) is behind on all counts.

Retirees like Julie Alters don’t need another report to know that after decades of trying, OPM still doesn’t give the people receiving annuities the service they deserve.

“It has been absolutely terrible,” Alters, a retired IRS employee in Phoenix, said of her 10-month effort trying to get OPM to fix her annuity issues. “I’ve contacted them hundreds of times.”

OPM’s Office of Inspector General (IG) says the agency’s retirement program burdens annuitants with “excessive busy signals and long wait times.” The IG report released Wednesday detailed a litany of problems, including:

  • 28 percent of the calls to the retirement information office in fiscal 2015 were abandoned. Often calls are abandoned when the caller gets tired of waiting. The problem is getting worse. The year before 24 percent were abandoned.
  • 53 percent of “legal administrative specialists were nonresponsive to messages” IG investigators left in the specialists’ voicemail boxes. These specialists adjudicate retirement claims.
  • 38 percent of the specialists’ voicemail boxes were full, meaning the IG callers could not leave a message. But the voicemail full message was only heard on calls from OPM phones. Regular retirees calling from the outside “would be unaware that their message was not delivered.”
  • 38 percent of the visitors to the retirement walk-in center at OPM’s headquarters in Washington “stated their issue was not resolved in a timely manner.”

Problems with OPM’s retirement services are an old story.

A 2009 Government Accountability Office (GAO) report said, “OPM remains far from achieving the modernized capabilities it had planned.” It reported on the agency’s “long history of retirement modernization initiatives” beginning with a 1987 automated processing system that was later terminated.

Not happy with the current situation, leaders of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee want GAO to examine ways to improve federal retirement services.

“Since March of this year, OPM has reported a steady decline in the percentage of cases processed in 60 days or less, reaching a low point of 64 percent for the month of September 2016,” said Reps. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) and Gerald Connolly (D-Va.) in a letter to GAO. “For those cases not processed in 60 days or less, the average processing time in September was 100 days.”

It’s been one OPM attempt after another to improve retirement services for almost 30 years. The title of the IG’s study is “Final Evaluation Report,” but it’s not likely the last.

“OPM continuously works to improve customer service to Federal retirees and looks forward to continue to work with all of our stakeholders, including the Office of the Inspector General and our partners on Capitol Hill to provide excellent customer service to millions of annuitants and their families,” said Mike Amato, OPM’s communications director.

OPM closed fiscal year 2016 with 77 percent of the retirement cases processed in under 60 days, with an average of 40 days, Amato added, explaining: “For those cases taking 101 days, the primary reason is because OPM is waiting for additional information from the new annuitant, their former agency, or both.”

The personnel agency is training 20 additional call center staffers and requested additional funding to hire more.

GAO recommended OPM establish written procedures regarding customers’ calls to legal administrative specialists, provide additional resources to deal with the backlog of written correspondence and develop an action plan to reduce the ratio of customer service specialists to customers.

Currently, the ratio is 27,000 to 1, three times greater than Social Security’s 8,000 service representatives for each customer. OPM agreed or partially agreed with GAO’s recommendations.

Having worked for the IRS, which has had its own customer service nightmares, Alters understands being “always understaffed.” But at least she said IRS lets taxpayers know the status of their cases. She credits the National Active and Retired Federal Employees Association (NARFE) for what progress her case has made with OPM.

NARFE’s September issue of its magazine carries the headline “Can You Hold/Call Center Disconnect.”

When Alters was given the phone number of an OPM staffer assigned to her case the line was disconnected.

“Are you freaking kidding me,” she said. “It’s ridiculous. The wait wouldn’t be so bad, she added, if OPM would just let her know what’s going on with her case.

The lack of information, she said, is “just really atrocious.”

Read more: 

[OPM unveils IT plan to improve federal retirement operations, recruitment]

[Federal retirement issues flourish]

[Witnesses tell of progress and problems with federal retirement system]

[At OPM, an overhaul of retirement processing]

[Mikulski calls OPM retirement system ‘scandalously wasteful’]

[OPM’s Efforts to Modernize Retirement System Sorely Lacking, GAO Finds]

[Inflation Mutes Joy Over Retiree Benefit Increase]