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Know Your Agencies #4: What Parts of the Government Regulate Retirement, and How they Can Help

Post 4 of 5: agencies regulating retirement benefits for government employees

The Pension Rights Center is located in Washington, D.C., where people regularly joke about how the government is made of “alphabet soup” because it consists of so many different agencies that we refer to by different combinations of letters. Sometimes figuring out which agency does what can be really daunting. So, the Pension Rights Center has put together a “know your agency” blog post series to help workers and retirees know what agencies can help in case they run into problems involving their retirement benefits.

Government retirement plans

In the past three blog posts of this series, we covered the three federal agencies that are most responsible for regulating retirement plans sponsored by private employers – that is to say private companies, non-profit organizations, and unions. But what about retirement plans for people who worked for a federal government agency, the military or a state or local government?

Civilian Federal Employees

For most current or former civilian employees of the federal government, your one-stop shop for retirement benefit issues is the Office of Personnel Management (OPM).  You can learn more about OPM here, and you can contact OPM with benefit questions at (888) 767-6738 or at retire@opm.gov. There are a handful of federal civilian employees whose retirement benefits are not administered by OPM.  For instance, the CIA and the Federal Reserve Bank System have their own retirement plans.

There’s one important thing you should note about OPM: The federal government is the largest employer in the country. Administering retirement benefits for millions of current and former federal employees is a big job, and OPM has a considerable backlog that results in long wait times and administrative difficulties for people trying to get through to them to claim a benefit or resolve problems with their benefits, so remember to account for that when you are making your retirement plans or trying to request help. A few years ago the Washington Post published an extensive article about OPM’s retirement operations center that is extremely enlightening.

If you have a difficult time getting answers from OPM about a benefit you or your spouse have earned, you may want to contact the OPM’s Ombudsman’s office at (202) 606-3132 or obuds@opm.gov.

Members of the Military

Career military members can earn retirement benefits through the military’s retirement system. These career retirement benefits should not be confused with Veterans’ Benefits, which are administered through the U.S. Department of Veterans’ Affairs. Current and retired servicemembers and spouses of current and retired servicemembers should address their retirement questions to the Defense Finance and Accounting Service (DFAS) at (800) 321-1080. You can also learn more about DFAS or get in touch with DFAS electronically here.

While it’s not a government agency, a great resource for former spouses of military members is Ex-Partners of Servicemembers for Equality (EX-POSE). You can call them at (703) 941-5844 and learn more about them here.

Employees and Retirees of State and Local Governments

While the IRS does have some authority to regulate retirement plans sponsored by state and local governments, these governmental plans are mostly self-regulating. That means that each one of these plans has its own rules and is set up and administered by a different government agency. And each state and local area operates differently, so the names of those agencies and what kinds of agencies are in charge will vary from location to location.

It’s not uncommon for state governments to offer one or two large, state-wide retirement systems that cover the majority of state employees. City governments often have different retirement systems for different types of employees. This is especially the case for employees of the school system, for police officers, and for firefighters. The city of New York has multiple different retirement plans just for different parts of its transit system.

If you’re struggling to figure out what local or state agency is in charge of your benefit, reach out to us at (202) 296-3776 and we will connect you to someone who can help track down your government retirement benefit.

Read the other posts in our "Know Your Agencies" series!

Post #1: Employee Benefits Security Administration (EBSA)

Post #2: Internal Revenue Service (IRS)

Post #3: Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (PBGC)

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