Donna Pitts decided she was ready to retire early this year and she wanted the process to be as smooth as possible. It hasn't been.
The Sacramento County information technology analyst submitted her paperwork to the county's retirement agency nearly 60 days ahead of time, just as it requested.
"I gave them the maximum amount of time that they allow for you to turn your paperwork in, because I didn’t want any delays" in receiving a retirement check, Pitts said.
She waited a month. Then two. But the check never came.
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”After about 72 days of not seeing anything, I called my retirement representative," Pitts said. "I asked when would I possibly be seeing a check, and he told me he had no idea. He could not even guess a date that I would see a check."
Pitts spoke to a supervisor at the Sacramento County Employees' Retirement System, who put her application at the top of his pile.
"That's cool," she said, "but what about all the other people who are now gonna wait even longer since I bumped them?"
SCERS' new CEO Eric Stern said he's well aware of the delays many people face in receiving their first payment after retiring, and the financial problems that can cause.
"We’re in the business of retirement security and not insecurity," Stern said. "And if we’re not getting our retirement checks out to our members in a timely way, we’re causing them stress and frustration at a time when they’re retiring and they should be celebrating and being happy. I recognize that that’s a problem, and one of the biggest things I've done since I've gotten to SCERS is to acknowledge that there's a problem."
Officially, SCERS aims for retirees to receive their first monthly check 45 days after paperwork is submitted. But metrics released at a recent board meeting show that the average wait time in 2017 was 80 days.
To be clear, Stern said, once people are in the system, they don't experience delays getting money. It's that first payment that's difficult.
SCERS — and other retirement agencies — are scrambling to keep up with applications because of shifting demographics, said Stern, who has noticed a "dramatic increase" in retirements over the last 10 years.
“We’re sort of at the crest of the baby boomer retirement age right now," he said. The agency has seen a steady increase in retirees each year, with the total number receiving checks growing from 7,709 in 2008 to 11,396 a year ago. It has about 50 employees to deal with all those applications, Stern said.
Not all agencies are struggling as much as SCERS is. It's struggling because of an archaic processing system and plenty of bureaucratic delays, according to Stern, who joined SCERS six months ago and says he has made it his mission to slice through all the red tape.
A sweeping change from manually processed applications to a "robust automated system" is still a few years away, he said, but there are some improvements that can be made in the interim to decrease wait times.
"We’re reallocating staff and re-prioritizing our staffing internally to throw a lot more bodies at helping out," Stern said. "We need to do better. We are putting a plan together to accomplish that over the next year."