A Study In Frustration

You guys, I’m going to share with you a tale of woe. Everything I’m about to tell you is true, and complicated, and this is gonna be long, but I’ll try to explain it as clearly as possible. Here goes.

The Office of Personal Management (OPM), which is the federal agency that does HR type tasks for the government like handling our health benefits enrollment and our retirement paperwork, approved my disability retirement because of my cancer (perk of stage IV: you get to take a disability retirement. Downside of stage IV: you’re gonna die of your disease) on August 20. Although I had planned to stay on the payroll and use up donated sick leave during my radiation treatments in September, OPM’s rules required me to retire either at the end of the pay period that August 20 fell in, or the one right after. I chose the one right after, which is why September 6 was my last day as a federal employee.

Now, the letter they sent me when they approved my disability retirement back on August 20 said that I “should receive” my first retirement annuity payment “within 10 days of your agency certifying your last day in pay to us.” OK, I thought, so I retired September 6 (that’s a Saturday), I got a big ass packet of paperwork from my agency the following Thursday, and so I expected to receive an annuity payment at least by October 1, which was when the next batch of annuity payments were scheduled to be paid by OPM. (You get your payment once a month, at the start of the month.)

October 1 came and went. We cashed out some savings to cover bills. I emailed OPM to report the missing payment. October 6, I called OPM because I still hadn’t gotten paid, and had gotten no response from OPM. I sat on hold for 40 minutes, and then the nice person who answered the phone said that OPM had not received my SF3100 form from my agency, and thus they couldn’t process my annuity payment. She said to call my agency and find out what happened.

So, I called the nice woman at my agency who had handled my paperwork, and told her what OPM said. She was HORRIFIED. “But I faxed it to them, they require us to fax it, so I did, why didn’t they tell me they didn’t receive it, I’m SO SORRY, I will resend it today, I’m SO SORRY.” OK, I thought, it must just have been some kind of fax-related snafu. It stunk to have to dip into savings, but whatever, it was going to be processed now that she was re-sending the form to OPM.

October 9, I tried to call OPM to ensure they’d gotten the re-sent form, since OPM clearly wasn’t going to initiate any communication and it was going to be on me to make sure things got to where they needed to go. And I got a busy signal. A busy signal. I’m not even kidding, folks, a busy signal. I couldn’t even get in the queue to wait 40 minutes on hold. So, I sent them an email instead. I got an auto-reply that said they would respond to my inquiry within 15 business days. 15 BUSINESS days. That’s 3 weeks, folks, plus an extra day because, for reasons surpassing understanding, Columbus Day is still a thing.

I kept trying to call OPM, because there was no way in hell I was gonna wait 3 weeks to find out if they’d gotten the form, and then have to wait 10 more days to get paid. And I kept getting a busy signal. Finally I got through to OPM on October 15. Another 40 minutes on hold, and I spoke to a woman who said that my file had just that day been “fully realized” but the system didn’t say it was going to go into a pay state, so she wasn’t sure what was happening with it. And she had no idea if my SF3100 form had been received or not. Then she said, “Call back in 2 weeks once your file has landed. It’s on the move today and I don’t know who in the new department will receive it, so I can’t put you through to anyone. So call back in 2 weeks, by then it will have landed.” She kept using that word, landed. I was now picturing my file flying through the air, tied to a balloon, floating around in a giant limestone cave.

Yes, I said limestone cave. You won’t believe this, but OPM literally processes federal employee retirement paperwork in an abandoned limestone quarry in western Pennsylvania. It’s a big ass cave, folks, that’s where our paperwork is. Also, the software they bought to try to automate some of this stuff? It didn’t work right, so they abandoned it and they do a lot of the calculations manually. It’s basically 1974 down in that cave, and the workload is ridiculous–they just don’t have enough people to do the work. So, it’s really common for federal employees not to get paid, or not to get their full pensions paid, for prolonged periods of time. I had a coworker whose retirement calculation was complex because he’d worked different places and had worked partly under the old system and partly under the new one, and it took a year for him to get his full retirement payments. And they only got done THAT quickly because he called his senator’s office and asked them to intervene on his behalf. And then suddenly his stuff was done in a matter of days of calling his senator’s office. I sure as hell wasn’t going to wait a year to get paid. So, I called my senator’s office.

At this point, I want to publicly thank Patty Murray’s staffers for being perfectly delightful, efficient and professional in their dealings with me. Please don’t make this partisan–I am a liberal, it’s true, but I hope if Senator Murray was a Republican, I would have been met with perfectly delightful, efficient and processional staff as well.

Anyway, I call Senator Murray’s office, and I tell the nice receptionist that I’m a federal retiree having problems with OPM processing my disability pension. And he said, “Oh sure, we help with stuff like that all the time. If you go on our website, there’s a form to fill out to get help with a federal agency–just send us that and our OPM person will hopefully work their magic for you.” OPM person. Her office literally has an OPM person. That’s how bad OPM’s retirement processing is, that she has an OPM expert. I mean, Washington State has a decent number of federal employees, but it’s not like we’re DC or Virginia or Maryland, where federal employees make up a big chunk of the population. And yet, our senator’s staff includes someone who deals with requests from frustrated federal retirees “all the time.”

So, I send in the form, via email because it’s the 21st century and her office didn’t require it be faxed like OPM apparently does, and on the following Monday (that brings us up to October 20), I call her office to make sure it was received. The very polite receptionist checked their system and confirmed that yes, my form had been received, it had been assigned to a staffer, and I should get a notification from them as soon as they had sent their inquiry about my case to OPM. See? Efficiency.

I called OPM again that day too. At first I got a busy signal. Again. But I called back in later, and this time I waited on hold for a mere 30 minutes. The nice person on the phone said that my file had moved to “interim pay status” on the 15th (you will recall that that’s the day it was flying around the limestone cave), and I should receive my first payment by November 1. Which was still inconsistent with the letter they sent me, but at least things were moving in the right direction.

The next day, I got a letter from OPM saying what my interim annuity amount would be, so I checked my bank account and there was my first annuity payment. Huzzah! I did a victory dance around my house.

At this point, I’d like to play a little what-if game. What if, instead of having Stage IV cancer, I had been hit by a bus and was now cognitively impaired, and that was the reason for my disability retirement? And say, instead of being married to a great guy who can help out with paperwork snafus, I was single? Who would be handling all this calling of OPM to find out that they hadn’t gotten a form and that they hadn’t followed up with my agency about it and asking a senator’s office to help out? How would that work? Would I ever have gotten paid?

It’s not OK for government to work this way. I know there are plenty of folks out there who say “That’s just how government is, you can’t fix it, it’s just always going to be inefficient and bureaucratic and have crappy customer service.” NO. I worked in government too long, and I know too many good, smart, caring, dedicated people working in government now, to believe that government MUST be this way. It’s this way because it’s starved of resources and run by incompetent people, and nobody calls them out on it. Patty Murray’s office runs efficiently because Congress gives her a budget to hire a competent staff to handle the workload, and because if they didn’t, it’d be all over the news. (And lest you think that government agencies have a monopoly on being run by incompetent people who don’t put resources into customer service, try talking to your cable company sometime. Or your credit card company. Or Facebook’s customer service team.)

I feel especially strongly that OPM and other agencies that take care of federal workers (like the Veterans’ Administration) shouldn’t work this way. OPM’s job is to take care of the people who take care of the American public. Federal employees are cops and forest rangers and civil rights investigators and social workers and nurses and doctors and PEOPLE WHO HELP PEOPLE. It is literally the least we can do to provide them with the benefits they have EARNED by their service to the American people. It is unacceptable that OPM operates this way, and it has to change. It HAS to change.