The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Investors criticize federal retirement savings program over new system

Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) speaks during a news conference May 3, 2022, in Washington. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

Three weeks after the retirement savings program for millions of federal workers switched to a new operating platform, lawmakers are demanding answers as investors report widespread problems.

Complaints have flooded social media, and messages have poured into congressional offices from investors describing being unable to sign into their accounts, long waits and dropped calls from customer service lines, missing information and problems with transactions such as taking out loans.

“It is a mess,” said Stacey Peckins, an Agriculture Department retiree who said she was locked out of her account and then stuck hold for four hours with customer service only to be cut off. “The lack of professionalism, lack of access and lack of information are not reassuring. As a retiree, this is a vote to move my money out of TSP.”

Federal retirement savings program to widely expand investment options

Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) raised many of those issues in a letter last week to the Thrift Savings Plan’s governing board, called the Federal Retirement Thrift Investment Board, or FRTIB.

“Constituents have indicated they have attempted to contact the TSP ‘ThriftLine’ for assistance, only to be put on hold for several hours and then be disconnected before talking to someone,” she wrote. In some cases, account holders must now wait for a security code to be delivered by mail, “which delays account access for weeks,” she added.

The board apologized for the problems, blaming logistical difficulties and understaffing at customer service centers. It says that successful logins for new accounts have been rising in recent weeks and that wait times on customer service calls have dropped.

“We anticipated that the transition, as most are, would be bumpy,” the board wrote on Friday to Norton. “We sincerely apologize for the frustration and inconvenience some of our participants are encountering. We are working to address these issues as quickly as possible so we can help those who need it.”

The system, which launched June 1 after years in development, added features to the TSP, including allowing investors who meet certain conditions to move some of their money into outside mutual funds. The TSP, a 401(k)-type program for current and former federal and military personnel, had 6.6 million account holders with $734 billion on investment as of the end of May, making it the largest such program in the country.

The changeover required investors to update the online accounts used for managing their money by shifting between funds, changing ongoing investments or taking withdrawals.

Federal workers and retirees have described an epidemic of malfunctions with the platform, and alarmed lawmakers are pushing for fast improvement.

“I think the worst part is that previously my experience with TSP was great,” Peckins said. “It was easy, reliable and accessible.”

Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) wrote to the board last week that many of his “constituents have been unable to complete the login setup process, and when they attempt to call the ThriftLine, they are placed on hold for at least an hour.” He asked for an explanation of what the TSP is planning and whether there is a “workaround for TSP participants to access their accounts while these login-setup issues persist.”

TSP’s board says data shows improvements. Since June 1, successful new logins have risen from 75 percent to 90 percent, it said, and the addition of customer service representatives has reduced call waiting times, although the board admitted that waits “remain too long.”

Norton, though, said in a statement Tuesday that the board’s response does not “address the problems my constituents are having accessing their TSP accounts. In addition, the response fails to provide information on what the FRTIB plans to do to correct the problems. I will continue to seek answers, fixes, and accountability.”

Another federal retiree, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the nature of his former job, said that he waited until last weekend to attempt to sign in “hoping they would have some of the bugs worked out” but that the system didn’t recognize identifying information he had used for years. “Trying to scan and upload my driver’s license and passport were also failures. I am now waiting on for a login code via U.S. Mail,” he wrote in an email.

The TSP has posted a list of “known issues” arising in reestablishing online accounts, including suggestions that account holders try a different browser and turn off auto-complete functions.

That page also notes that personal accounts now show balances and messages going back only to the June 1 switch-over; investors needing information from before then must call the customer service line. The message also urges account holders to make sure their designations of beneficiaries in case of death are up to date.

A federal employee who asked not to be identified because of agency policy restricting public comments said he found both of those policies troublesome. In an email, he said he was able to reestablish his personal account fairly easily, but it did not show the beneficiary election he made previously and was lacking account information he wanted to see.

“I expect more of an organization who is to administer and protect my retirement,” he said. “These two small issues put the whole organization's ability to do their mission at doubt.”

TSP spokeswoman Kim Weaver said that more than 800,000 investors have created new logins. The more recent 90 percent success rate for new logins “is not from our perspective bad customer service. It’s actually ensuring we’re protecting our participants’ accounts. … There are bots trying to do this,” she said in a phone interview.

She said that since June 1 — when the phone line received 130,000 calls, 2.5 times the previous daily high — call center staffing has increased from 485 to 805 employees. During that time, the abandonment rate on calls has dropped from 90 percent to 66 percent. The average wait time on the call line is now down to 49 minutes from two hours on June 6, TSP said.

“While our level of service at the call centers needs much improvement, it is trending in the right direction, and we will continue to add call center representatives to handle the increased volume,” she said.