Stuck in Butler County mine, retirees' paperwork points to government's balky IT issues

Work still must be done entirely by hand, almost entirely on paper

Share with others:


Print Email Read Later

The trucks full of paperwork come every day, turning off a Butler County road and descending through a gateway into the earth. Underground, they stop at a metal door decorated with an American flag.

Behind the door, a room opens up as big as a supermarket, full of five-drawer file cabinets and people in business casual. About 230 feet below the surface, there is easy-listening music playing at somebody's desk.

This is one of the weirdest workplaces in the U.S. government -- both for where it is and for what it does.

Inside the caverns of an old Pennsylvania limestone mine in the village of Boyers in Marion, 18 miles north of Butler, there are 600 employees of the Office of Personnel Management. Their task is nothing top secret. It is to process the retirement papers of the government's own workers.

But that system has a spectacular flaw. It still must be done entirely by hand, and almost entirely on paper.

The employees pass thousands of case files from cavern to cavern and then key in retirees' personal data, one line at a time. They work underground not for secrecy, but for space. The old mine's tunnels have room for more than 28,000 file cabinets of paper records.

This odd place is an example of how hard it is to get a time-wasting bug out of a big bureaucratic system.

Held up by all that paper, work in the mine runs as slowly now as it did in 1977.

The existence of a mine full of federal paperwork is not well known: Even within the federal workforce, it is often treated as an urban legend, mythic and half-believed.

But the mine is real, and the process inside it belongs to a stubborn class of government problem: old breaking points, built-in mistakes that require vital bureaucracies to waste money and busy workers to waste time.

Some of the explanation can be found in Boyers, in this baroque underground bureaucracy.

Over the past 30 years, administrations have spent more than $100 million trying to automate the old-fashioned process in the mine and make it run at the speed of computers.

They couldn't.

So now the mine continues to run at the speed of human fingers and feet. That failure imposes costs on federal retirees, who have to wait months for their full benefit checks. And it has imposed costs on the taxpayer: The Obama administration has now made the mine run faster, but mainly by paying for more fingers and feet.

The staff working in the mine has increased by at least 200 people in the past five years. And the cost of processing each claim has increased from $82 to $108, as total spending on the retirement system reached $55.8 million.

In a statement issued Saturday, OPM director Katherine Archuleta said: "I do not believe that the current level of service is acceptable." She added that modernizing the system is a priority for her.

This is how the mine works:

Step 1 begins when a federal employee submits retirement paperwork to his or her own agency. That happens at least 100,000 times a year. Within a few days, the government starts sending "interim payments" to the retirees -- checks worth about 80 percent of their full pensions. This is meant to tide them over while the mine works on the case.

But why is it in a cave at all?

The answer to that question is that, back in 1958, the U.S. government was in the market for storage space. It needed 30,000 square feet to hold personnel files that were being relocated from a building in Washington, D.C. Officials looked at buildings in Richmond, Va., and Syracuse, N.Y., before choosing this place, an underground complex where 1,000 workers had once cut limestone to feed the steel mills.

A private company had turned the place into an enormous safe-deposit box: safe from the weather and the Soviets, kept naturally cool as a cave. Today, the complex is owned by the company Iron Mountain, which leases out other caverns to store old Hollywood movie reels and photo archives.

The government moved its old records to Boyers in 1960. At first, it was just a file room. Records were shipped to Washington for processing. But over time, the government began to hire more people to work in the mine itself.

For workers inside the mine, Step 2 in the paperwork process is to take the retiree's newly arrived file and match it up with any records already stored in the mine.

In about 15 percent of the cases, that means a long walk into the mine's eight massive file caverns. Inside, they are empty enough to be spooky.

In most cases, however, Step 2 can be completed without a walk. The retiree's files have been scanned into a digital archive and can be looked up on a computer.

But there's a problem: All the information must go in the retiree's manila folder.

And you can't put a computer file in a manila folder.

"We do print them out, right now. But we won't in the future," said Doug Berger, who supervises this operation. The printed-out documents are put in the folder, and it continues.

Now, Step 3: The file moves around the corner to an adjacent cavern. The workers there have a vital but frustrating job. They must call, email, fax, badger and harass workers in other federal agencies to find paperwork that has been left out of the file.

Step 3 usually takes a few days to a few weeks. But if anybody's file is misplaced along the way, it slows everybody's work down.

Finally, when all the file's missing papers are found, the file moves on to a new set of workers in a new set of caverns.

This is Step 4.

Now that all the retiree's digital data have been turned into paperwork, these workers turn that paperwork into digital data again. They type all the pertinent information into a computer, by hand.

When all the data are entered into the computer, it is onto Step 5. Another employee reviews the case to be sure the data were entered correctly. Then, at last, the case is "triggered." The retiree gets the full check.

That process now takes, on average, at least 61 days. That's the same amount of time it took in 1977, according to a federal audit from that time. Many state retirement systems, which also handle large loads of employees, do it much faster. Florida takes 47 days. The California teachers' retirement system takes 23. Texas takes two.


Join the conversation:

Commenting policy | How to report abuse
To report inappropriate comments, abuse and/or repeat offenders, please send an email to socialmedia@post-gazette.com and include a link to the article and a copy of the comment. Your report will be reviewed in a timely manner. Thank you.
Commenting policy | How to report abuse

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

You have 2 remaining free articles this month

Try unlimited digital access

If you are an existing subscriber,
link your account for free access. Start here

You’ve reached the limit of free articles this month.

To continue unlimited reading

If you are an existing subscriber,
link your account for free access. Start here