It’s no secret that the Office of Personnel Management has long wait times and a seemingly never-ending backlog of retirement claims. So, what exactly is the problem? In a previous post, we looked at possible reasons behind the continuous backlog. This post will focus more on the long wait times and OPM’s customer service issues. OPM’s Retirement Services provides customer service to 2.6 million annuitants, survivors, and family members.
OPM set a goal to respond to inquiries within 60 days. A report by the OPM Inspector General found the Retirement Services division is not living up to those goals. Instead, they are taking on average three months to respond to mail read, and in some cases, four months. Additionally, the report found that Legal Administrative Specialists (LAS’s) consistently failed to respond to all written correspondence. They also weren’t responsive to voice mails, and annuitants are having to make multiple attempts to contact the office before getting a response. In fact, the report noted 53 percent of LAS’s weren’t responsive to voice mails and 38 percent had mailboxes that were full.
The report also found that many calls to Retirement Services are abandoned. Of the 1.9 million calls from annuitants, roughly 500,000 were abandoned. Moreover, callers got busy signals on the toll-free number. Those fortunate enough to get through waited 20 minutes or longer on hold. On average, more than 24,000 callers calling the toll-free number reach a busy signal every day. The agency did add more phone numbers so that a customer service representative could be reached easier. However, the IG reported that OPM did not have the proper staffing levels to accommodate extra phone lines. In the report, the IG wrote, “Due to the Retirement Information Office staffing levels, the additional telephone lines actually increased wait times and led to higher abandonment rates.”
Thus, customer satisfaction is down to 66 percent on the amount of time it took to respond to written correspondence. That is a five percent decline from the year before. Twenty-one percent were dissatisfied with the timeliness of getting their problems resolved. When retirees indicate they have made multiple calls without a response, the inquiry is logged and escalated to a manager. The manager is then required to respond within 48 hours.
The director of OPM, Beth Cobert, had this to say, “At OPM, we are consistently working to improve the quality of this experience. The Presidents’ budget provides additional funding to help us decrease the amount of time a customer must wait to talk to a representative or get a response to their email. And the added resources will help us reduce the time it takes to process a retirement claim.” OPM wants to hire 42 more LAS’s. However, the IG report said that hiring those extra specialists is only going to be a good thing if they respond to the backlog of written correspondence.
Long wait times also applies to their walk-in center. Of the retirees interviewed, 62 percent of them said they made previous attempts “through various avenues” to get in contact with customer service. Annuitants are assigned a LAS who is their primary point of contact. The ratio of specialists to annuitants is 1 to 27,000. Compare that to the Social Security Administration, where the ratio is 1 to 8,000. The hiring of those 42 additional LAS’s would bring the ratio at OPM to 1 to 19,000.
The IG recommends that OPM develops guidance and training to ensure specialists are responding to phone calls. Also, they noted that they need to allocate more resources so written communications can be responded to more efficiently.
Also, their retirement claims backlog has jumped up 10 percent for the month of October. Their backlog now stands at its highest since March 2016, at close to 17,000!
Clearly, OPM needs to take action to ensure annuitants, survivors, and family members receive better customer service. The process now is leading to unnecessary hardships to anyone trying to reach OPM. While the hiring of 42 additional specialists may not solve all of their customer service issues, it may help cut down on wait times in the call and walk-in centers.