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Federal Disability Retirement for the U.S. Postal Service: The Validity of Medical Conditions, whether Physical or Psychiatric

In the year 2014, one would expect that mindsets of anachronistic tendencies would have disappeared.  Social upheaval; changes of customs, values and mores; alterations to traditional notions of what defines X; as each generation believes itself to be the wisest, so we have arrived at this period in modernity where questions of the validity of psychiatric conditions would still be an issue.  That is rather astounding.  Calls are still received where the query reflects a sense of trepidation as to the viability of a psychiatric condition.  This, in the year 2014.

Postal employees, in particular, suffer great stresses in the workplace.  It is simply a fact of life for the modern Postal Worker:  Do more with less; don’t expect a pay raise; consider yourself lucky in this economy to have a job.  But what are the consequences of following such a mandate?  Greater stresses at every tier of being occurs when employed at the U.S. Postal Service.  The real “trickle-down” economic theory has to do with the employment impact of a worker’s environment which finds its paradigmatic impetus in the U.S. Postal Service:  the physical and psychological consequences of an organization (the U.S. Postal Service) which expects more of its workers, while demanding that the same work be accomplished with less help, less pay, and within the constraints of less time, because overtime pay is forbidden.  Stress and the psychological impact upon one’s health, are the conjoining issues which can never be quantified.

As a child, one recalls a representative of the Nuclear energy industry visiting our school and giving a talk, and citing a statistic that not a single individual had died as a result of an industry accident.  At the time, the thought was:  that is a pretty amazing statistical conclusion.  As one grows older, of course, hopefully one increases in wisdom – or, put another way, in cynicism.  Question:  Does the statistical conclusion take into account a cancer-related death occurring decades later, where direct causality between an industry and the medical condition cannot be unequivocally established?  And a similar question for the U.S. Postal Service:  Do the pressures placed upon the Postal Worker, to do more with less, account for a rise is Psychiatric conditions?

It sounds so simple, in theory:  This is a hard economy; competition is more intense than ever; UPS and FedEx are eating away at the competitive edge which the USPS once held; everyone is suffering, so it is only fair to force the U.S. Postal Service to be required of the same:  Do more with less.

But as with all actions, there are consequences which – foreseen or unforeseen – take their toll.  The short answer is that, in filing for Federal Disability Retirement benefits, there is little difference as to the viability of a case between physical medical conditions and psychiatric conditions.  The issue is no longer the conceptual distinction between physical medical conditions and psychiatric conditions; rather, the issue is one of establishing sufficient proof in filing for OPM Disability Retirement benefits.  For, in the end, proving a Federal Disability Retirement case, filed with and reviewed by the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, is not based upon a determination of the seriousness of a medical condition; rather, regardless of the medical condition, the extent of the impact to which the medical condition prevents one from performing one or more of the essential elements of the Postal Job which the Postal Worker must engage.

It is thus the “nexus”, or the linguistic “bridge” established between a medical condition and the type of job which the Postal Worker must work, which is the important body of proof to establish in a Federal Disability Retirement application.  How does one make that connection, or establish that proof?  Since much of Postal work involves strenuous physical activities of a repetitive nature, where physical health and fitness is the primary focus, how does one then wrap the physical aspect around the psychological turmoil?  If you can physically lift up to 70 lbs., bend and twist repetitively; stand and walk throughout the day; it matters not whether you suffer from Bipolar Disorder, Cognitive Dysfunctions, Severe Major Depression, Anxiety, Panic Attacks, suicidal ideations, etc.  Or so one might assume, and therefore doubt that psychiatric conditions form a viable avenue for successfully filing for Federal Disability Retirement benefits, for Postal employees who are under either FERS or CSRS.

The concurrent and parallel roads which converge to precipitate the large volume of cases comprised of psychiatric conditions, by Postal Workers alone, shows the state of working for the U.S. Postal Service.  Yes, Postal Work is engaged in rigorous physical exertions, which often comprise a compendium of medical conditions which are valid bases for filing a Federal Disability Retirement application, including (but not limited to), Rotator Cuff tears; chronic knee pain; lumbar and cervical radiculopathy; Carpal Tunnel Syndrome; Shoulder Impingement Syndrome; Plantar Fasciitis; and multiple other physical conditions.  Paralleling such physical conditions, however, are the stresses from such physical work which often manifest themselves in psychiatric terms, including those psychiatric conditions already mentioned above in the preceding paragraph:  Major Depression; inability to focus or concentrate; Agoraphobia (which would obviously impact City or Rural Carriers); Generalized Anxiety Disorder; uncontrollable panic attacks; and similar psychiatric medical conditions.

How does one create the nexus between (A) a Psychiatric condition which impacts the cognitive capacity of a Postal Worker and (B) the inability to perform what essentially amounts to exertional physical labor?  Quite simply:  The ability to perform physical labor does not merely involve the physical act of labor; rather, it also entails sustained and consistent cognitive focus, concentration, and attention to detail.  The intersecting and inseparable cooperation between the mind and the body in performing physical labor cannot be avoided.  Sometimes, it is the physical medical conditions (e.g., chronic pain; multi-level degenerative disc disease; early onset of arthritis; subacromial bursitis; knee problems; ankle instability; and multiple other conditions) which are primary, with the psychiatric disabilities being secondary (i.e., Major Depression, Anxiety, panic attacks, etc., following upon the constant fight against the chronic pain, and thus deemed to be “second” in sequence with the physical conditions being primary).  The point throughout, however, is that the attempted separation and bifurcation between physical disabilities and psychiatric disabilities, no longer hold any valid basis.

A decade or so ago, the question as to whether psychiatric medical conditions were more difficult to prove in a FERS or CSRS Federal Disability Retirement application, filed with the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, may have deserved a momentary pause for reflection.  In this day and age, the validity of such a question itself must be questioned.  The mind/body distinction which first took root in our culture through the philosophical division created by a French Philosopher named Descartes, has resulted in centuries-old questions as to the bifurcation between the physical and the psychological.  In this day and age, however, the Postal Worker need not fear or have any concerns about the viability of a Federal Disability Retirement application which involves primarily psychiatric-based claims.  Psychiatric medical conditions, including (but not limited to) Major Depression, Anxiety, Panic Attacks, Bipolar Disorder, Schizophrenia, Agoraphobia, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorders, etc., are all valid bases upon which to file for Federal Disability Retirement benefits; as well as all of the physical medical conditions which one may suffer from.

In the end, it is no longer a question of whether the medical condition involves physical or psychiatric medical conditions, when it comes to a valid basis for filing a OPM Federal Disability Retirement application.  Rather, the question is how one formulates one’s case such that proof can be established that the medical condition – whether physical or psychiatric – prevents one from performing one or more of the essential elements of one’s Postal duties.  It is the “how” which is important, and no longer the “whether”.

FERS & CSRS Disability Retirement for the U.S. Postal Service Employee – The Needed Proof

Postal employees often feel that they are second-class citizens – both in terms of their status and stature as a “Federal employee” who is under either the Federal Employees Retirement System (FERS) or (for those lucky ones who are quickly diminishing in numbers but who were able to enter the Federal workforce prior to the 1986 transition) under the Civil Service Retirement System (CSRS); and in terms of pay scales and discussions in Congress related to bloated budgets, inability to become profitable, etc.

For Postal employees who are considering filing for Federal Disability Retirement, either under FERS or CSRS, the question is often queried as to whether the U.S. Office of Personnel Management treats Postal employees differently than non-Postal, Federal employees.   Whether there is any empirical evidence of discriminatory intent on the part of OPM against Postal employees who file for Federal Disability Retirement benefits, is essentially a non-starter.  For, in the end, each case must be decided on the unique quality and extent of the medical documentation compiled.   Further, one cannot compare and contrast differentiated groups lumped by “Postal” as opposed to “non-Postal”, precisely because the uniqueness of each Federal Disability Retirement case is characterized by the medical condition itself; the type of job and positional duties undertaken by individual X who suffers from the medical condition; and the extent, severity and chronicity of the medical conditions in relation to the duties.

With literally hundreds of Federal agencies, and thousands and tens of thousands of differing types of jobs, one cannot aggregate a generic “Postal Worker” and compare it to a compounded composite of “other Federal workers”.  Thus, it is a wrong question to ask.  Instead, the proper question to ask would be:  Given a Postal Worker who is in craft-X, who suffers from medical condition-Y, is there a greater incidence of denials from the U.S. Office of Personnel Management of Postal Workers who file for Federal Disability Retirement benefits, and if there is a greater proportional aggregate of denials as compared to the total number of denials, is there a valid reason for such disproportionate treatment?

In other words, it would be – on its face – incomparably unfair to compare an IT Specialist with the Department of the Navy, who suffers from severe Major Depression and anxiety, to a City Letter Carrier who suffers from status-post cervical discectomy and fusion, precisely because of the type of medical condition involved, and the positional requirements of both.  Further, are there inherent factors within the U.S. Postal Service which can account for any disparate treatment (if we proceed on the assumption that there even exists such differentiation of reviewing and deciding Federal Disability Retirement applications filed by Postal Workers, as opposed to non-Postal, Federal employees)?   The answer is, Yes.

The Postal Service has for years been identified with the notoriety of refusing to accommodate their workers.  Whether in association with OWCP and the Department of Labor, where workers are sent to “second opinion” doctors and “referee” medical facilities in an effort to get people off of the rolls of OWCP and back to full duty; or in conjunction with the National Reassessment Program where an across-the-board infrastructural policy was implemented stating that no accommodations were available for those craft employees who could no longer perform all of the essential functions of one’s job, and that no medical restrictions or limitations would be henceforth honored – a maneuver meant to get rid of all Postal employees who were not fully functional in their jobs – the approach of the U.S. Postal Service in attempting to regain a competitive edge was to try and get rid of anyone and everyone who suffered from a medical condition such that the medical condition prevented the employee from performing all of the essential elements of one’s job.  One might think, upon first considering that approach, that such a maneuver by the U.S. Postal Service would increase the chances for getting a Federal Disability Retirement application approved – for, by conceding that the injured craft employee cannot perform any jobs at the U.S. Postal Service, the assumption would be that such a concession would be evidence for the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, as well as the Federal Disability Retirement applicant, that one is qualified because of the self-admission by the Postal Service, for Federal Disability Retirement benefits.

The problem is twofold:  First, the U.S. Office of Personnel Management is a separate agency from the U.S. Postal Service, and applies a legal criteria which gives scant attention to what the Postal Service thinks, does, or acts upon; and Second, evidence of what the U.S. Postal Service decides – while of somewhat dubious impact and persuasive authority – is ultimately not what makes a Federal Disability Retirement applicant eligible for Federal Disability Retirement benefits.

Indeed, look, for example, beginning with some older precedential cases such as Wilkey-Marzin v. OPM, 82 M.S.P.R. 200 (1999) – where  the Merit Systems Protection Board found that in order to determine a disability retirement in favor of an appellant,  there must be a showing beyond uncorroborated subjective evidence, and provide a “reasoned explanation” of the origins of the disabilities, and how it is disabling with respect to one’s specific duties.  In providing some guiding principles, the Board noted that the Judge should consider the following evidence: (1) objective clinical findings; (2) diagnoses and medical opinions; (3) subjective evidence of pain and disability; (4) evidence relating to the effect of the applicant’s condition on his ability to perform in the grade or class of position last occupied (see also Dunn v. Office of Personnel Management, 60 M.S.P.R. 426, 432 (1994) ).  Note that nowhere in the four (4) guiding principles is there an indication that what the agency does or doesn’t do, should be of primary consideration.  This is not to say that the issue of accommodations will not be relevant; and, certainly, one can argue that an NRP-based decision of refusing any work, or the dreaded “DRAC” (the so-called District Reasonable Accommodation Committee) determination of “no work available”, cannot be effectively used; but the primary focus in a Federal Disability Retirement case, from the viewpoint of the U.S. Postal Worker, should be to prove one’s case based upon the medical documentation, and not rely upon anything which the Postal Services does or doesn’t do.

In the end, if there has been an increase in the number of disability retirement applications, in proportional numbers as compared between “Postal Workers” and any other single Federal Agency of the U.S. Government, it may be because of such unreasonable and uncompromising positions taken under the NRP, the DRAC decisions or in conjunction with OWCP claims.  For, when a determination is made that an agency (in this case, the U.S. Postal Service) will refuse to in good faith attempt to accommodate injured employees, such an intransigent policy will quite obviously increase the numbers of applications to obtain Federal Disability Retirement benefits.  But reliance upon what the agency does, without solid medical evidence to prove, by a preponderance of the evidence, that the Postal Worker is eligible and entitled to Federal Disability Retirement benefits, is to run a fool’s errand.  Postal Workers have had to face multiple obstacles over the years, both in economic downsizing and frozen pay structures; and the decision to shed its workers from within because of medical conditions is merely an indication of the heart and soul of the Postal Service – not necessarily any evidence which would qualify the Postal Worker for Federal Disability Retirement benefits.  For that, one must affirmatively go out and compile one’s case, and use such evidence of the NRP as merely a secondary, peripheral

FERS & CSRS Federal Disability Retirement: Securing a Future in a World of Uncertainties

     Federal Disability Retirement is a benefit under both FERS (Federal Employees Retirement System) and CSRS (Civil Service Retirement System).  Postal employees are either under FERS or CSRS, and each Postal Service employee is eligible for the benefit variously known as “Federal Disability Retirement”, “Medical Retirement under FERS or CSRS”, or sometimes otherwise recognized as “OPM Disability Retirement”.  As the economy constricts, and the Federal deficit continues to loom larger, companies often tend to react in ways which are contrary to rationality or good business sense.  As the upper management of the U.S. Postal Service is not known for great managerial competence, accessibility to such compensatory programs as the FERS & CSRS Disability Retirement programs will be an essential roadmap for securing one’s future economic well-being. 

     The U.S. Postal Service is a Constitutionally-recognized entity, as referenced in Article I, Section 8, Clause 7 of the U.S. Constitution, providing that Congress shall establish Post Offices.  Yet, it is clear that the Federal Government wants to dissociate itself from its obligations, leaving the U.S. Postal Service to fend for itself in these difficult economic times.  With sequestration overshadowing all budgetary issues (and with uncertainties as to their long-term effects upon the rights, duties, obligations and entitlements for Federal and Postal employees); a Postal 2012 deficit tally approximating 16 billion dollars; and now, after failing in an earlier attempt to “connect” with the younger generation (by the way, where is the Lady Gaga stamp?), now we are making a stab at fashion and a clothing line.  This will surely be a revenue-generating endeavor (please ignore the obvious sarcasm inherent in such a statement) and, moreover, will be a fierce competitor against the likes of London, New York and Paris fashion designers.  Where, oh where, has the U.S. Postal Service gone wrong?

     Then, of course, there is the “mystery shopper” program.  This is essentially analogous to the drone program of spying on one’s own citizenry, except that the employees who go around finding fault through endless irrelevancies and minutiae are getting paid for a job which does nothing to advance the efficiency or profitability of the U.S. Postal Service.  Indeed, when the “mystery shopper” begins annotating multiple demeritorious criticisms leveled at a Postal Facility, do they take into account that with the cutbacks and budgetary constraints, the Postmaster is running back and forth filling in; that the Mail Truck did not arrive until 11:00 a.m. because central distribution facilities have been consolidated and everyone down the assembly line is overworked and understaffed?  So, if the Window Clerk fails to ask the customer whether or not he or she would like to buy any stamps, perhaps it is because there is a line of 20 people waiting behind the customer? 

     Of course, stresses are an everyday part of life.  In man’s original “state of nature”, survival itself was the great stressor.  In man’s artificially-created world of commercial competition, debts and deficits which go into the trillions; and in a world where a Constitutionally-authorized entity is ignored by the U.S. Congress — the stresses and the dangers posed by the U.S. Postal Service will only get worse as the economic fortunes of the U.S. Postal Service continue to decline.  In this artificially-created world of post-industrial stresses, the U.S. Postal Worker is most uniquely susceptible to medical conditions which reflect the complexity, severity and in many cases, the savagery of the global competitiveness of the world in which we live.  Everyone has been impacted by the electronic age of datum-dissipation:  email, online shopping, Internet communication; Skype, IM, Texting, Facebook updating; all of the technologically-advanced methodologies of communicating – in the face of this, the old first-class letter sent from one part of the country to another.  For .46 cents, why would someone send a letter which takes at least three days to deliver, when you can push a button and send an email instantaneously?  With FedEx, UPS and other smaller carriers competing for the limited rights to dominate the global market of transporting and delivering parcels and packages, the question of loss, of relevance, of a dedicated workforce willing to invest in a company with a future outlook which is bright and promising, is the key to the very survival of the U.S. Postal Service.

     Mistreating its injured workers; trying to compete in a line of commercial venture which is, at best, tantamount to a the proverbial “fish out of water”; cutting back on the backbone of its strength – by shutting down major distribution processing facilities and declaring to the public that such facility closures will not impact the efficiency of the delivery system – a statement which everyone knows to be merely a conciliatory attempt at putting things in the best light possible, but which we all recognize is at best an exaggerated misstatement of facts; and now, retreating and retrenching by stopping Saturday mail deliver – these are not the foundations for a promising future for Postal Workers all across the United States.  In the very recognition of all of this, it is important to understand that if the Postal Worker of today is an anathema, a dinosaur in a world of technology and multi-tasking:  The mail must still be trucked, unloaded, pulled, culled, sorted, processed, distributed, all by hands, arms, necks, shoulders, backs and knees which are not built for decades of repetitive strain.  Performed by Mail Handlers, Distribution Clerks, Mail Processing Clerks; Window clerks, Sales, Service & Distribution Clerks; Letter Carriers (City & Rural); overseen by Supervisors, Customer Services; Postmasters and Postal Managers; the physical strain, exacerbated by the emotional and psychiatric stresses of doing more with less; all have, continue to, and will result in greater and widespread medical disabilities which will include a long litany of conditions which will include repetitive strain injuries, Carpal Tunnel Syndrome, Shoulder Impingement Syndrome; Subacromial bursitis; Labral tears; knee injuries; multi-level degenerative spinal conditions; Major Depression, Generalized Anxiety Disorder, uncontrollable panic attacks; just to list a short version of potential medical conditions which will erupt in a rampage of conditions which will result in an inability to perform the physically-demanding, cognitively-stressful, and emotionally draining jobs within the U.S. Postal Service.

     Stress is an inherent part of any job.  However, that being said, the stresses which are artificially imposed because of deleterious managerial decisions over (now) many decades of misuse, abuse and poor engagements for competitive economic ventures outside of the proper venue of what the U.S. Postal Service is empowered to do – will only predictably result in the exponential explosion of medically disabling conditions.  Federal Disability Retirement is a viable avenue of consideration for the injured and medically disabled Postal Worker.  It provides compensatory relief for the Postal Worker who is no longer able to perform one or more of the essential elements of one’s job, and allows for the possibility to receive an annuity while seeking to continue in another vocation in the private sector.  As an annuity, it will pay 60% of the average of one’s highest-3 consecutive years of service for the first year, then 40% every year thereafter, until age 62 when the annuity is recomputed based upon the total number years of Federal Service (including the time while on Federal Disability Retirement). 

     As a compensation program, Federal Disability Retirement is a progressive paradigm for the future.  While the U.S. Postal Worker continues to engage in such foolish endeavors as a line of designer clothing, the ground-level Postal Worker must always entertain all options available, to secure the future, and provide for some economic certainty in an ever-growing world of uncertainty.

The Postal Worker and Federal Disability Retirement: Avoiding Temptation and Securing One’s Future

     The world around us imposes a level of complexity which requires the construction of a veil — for some, it is a light grey to partially shade from the brightness of reality; for others, it may be slightly darker.  Such veils are necessary for survival; however, when the mind requires a complete engulfing into fantasy, then it enters into the dangerous state of mental incapacity, and the somnolence of escape has gone too far.

                                                               — From, The Power of Mind and its Relation to the World

     Postal Workers are especially susceptible to the attractive somnolence of benefits received from the Office of Worker’s Compensation Programs, administered through the Department of Labor, under the purview of the Federal Employee’s Compensation Act.  In many ways, OWCP payments provide a false sense of security.  It may last for many years; indeed, one may even be forgotten while on OWCP rolls; and, but for the zero-balance paystubs which the U.S. Postal Service employee continues to receive on a bi-weekly basis, the U.S. Postal Worker maintains a comfortable income –  with dependents, 75% of one’s salary; without, 66 2/3% of one’s salary.  Life can seemingly be good; staying at home, being paid with regularity; until, of course, the inevitable troubles begin. 

     OWCP was never meant to be a retirement system.  While the U.S. Postal Service has been, of recent years, treating OWCP as the dumping ground for Postal Workers, and de facto treating it as a retirement system, the plain fact is that the Department of Labor scrutinizes all Worker’s Comp recipients with the ultimate view towards rehabilitation, and return to some sort of work.  Because of this, those who have been on OWCP but who fail to file for, and secure, Federal Disability Retirement benefits, face the danger of ultimately getting their benefits cut off with no viable alternative recourse.

     The counter to OWCP benefits – or, perhaps more appropriately described, the “complement” to OWCP  — is Federal Disability Retirement benefits from the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, whether the Postal Worker is under the Federal Employee’s Retirement System (FERS) or Civil Service Retirement System (CSRS).  The Postal Worker – and any Federal employee, for that matter, whether Postal or non-Postal –  needs to understand that OWCP is not a retirement system.  Further, whether under the so-called “National Reassessment Program” or some similar nonsense whereby the U.S. Postal Service attempts to hide behind a veneer and semblance of a respectable, thoughtful “program” of becoming more efficient, placing the injured Postal Worker on the rolls of OWCP is another way of stating the obvious:  We don’t want you anymore, and don’t bother trying to come back.

     This unsympathetic approach of the U.S. Postal Service in the past few years has been obvious:  once a Postal Worker becomes injured, the fallback position is to shed its rolls of anyone who is not “fully” productive, by trying to keep them on OWCP.  But the purpose of OWCP was never intended to be used as the dumping grounds for an organization which doesn’t want its injured employees.  Indeed, for decades, the coordinated efforts of all parties involved worked in a unified approach to return the injured Postal Worker to an acceptable level of productivity such that three goals were attained:

1.    First, the injured Postal Worker was compensated during a period of recuperation and rehabilitation, but always with a view that such compensation was temporary, limited, and for a specified period of time.
2.    Second, because of the nature of the jobs at the U.S. Postal Service, requiring the physical ability to engage in highly repetitive functions, with lifting capabilities, of reaching, bending, lifting, standing, walking, etc., throughout the day – that a modification of such physical requirements was necessary in order to “accommodate” any permanent injuries and restrictions resulting from the original injury to the U.S. Postal Worker.
3.    A cohesive and coordinated level of acceptable agreement – not what each party necessarily desires, but at least reaching a level of compromise and cooperation between the three parties involved:  For the Postal Worker, compensation for engaging in the arduous physical requirements of one of the most taxing jobs upon the architectural magnificence of the human body, where one has voluntarily subjected him/herself to the anatomical destruction and lifetime deterioration of one’s entire musculoskeletal integrity; for the Office of Worker’s Compensation Programs, an end to the rehabilitative period, and a return of the worker to the originating agency – the U.S. Postal Service; and for the U.S. Postal Service, the continuing productivity of its worker, albeit at a modified position, with some compromising on the extent and level of the physical requirements in a newly created position.

    But somewhere on the road to Damascus, something changed.  It wasn’t a bolt of lightening, and it wasn’t a sudden revelation from on high.  Rather, it was a unilateral decision that ultimately misdiagnosed the problem:  the inability of the U.S. Postal Service to remain in the financial black – of profitability – was not because of missteps in competing against FedEx or USPS by upper management; it wasn’t because of a top-heavy bureaucracy which over-compensated unproductive upper level managers and wasted funds on needless conferences and junkets; it wasn’t because of the failure of management to recognize the impending impact of email and other electronic forms of communication; no, the problem was determined to be the Postal Worker – the ones who actually did the work.

     The solution, according to the all-wise management of the U.S. Postal Service?  To get rid of all workers on light duty, modified duty, or otherwise all who were not fully productive; dump them onto the rolls of OWCP by declaring that a search of the U.S. Postal Service has resulted in the finding that there is no work available within the restrictions imposed by your medical conditions; and, oh, by the way, while OWCP was never meant to be a retirement system, that is effectively what we are asking of you – to go away.

     Yet, efficiency is a calculus in business which is defined in multifaceted ways, and nothing which the U.S. Postal Service, on the corporate level, has implemented, has proven to be an effective catalyst in promoting its interests.  What the U.S. Postal Service has done is to undermine the essence of the value of business capital, by destroying:

  • Loyalty – for, the manner in which any corporate entity treats its human capital, will be returned with the undying loyalty of its employees
  • A motivated workforce – as the ground level employees of the U.S. Postal Service witnessed the self-immolation of upper management by destroying the fabric of its workforce, the palpable reverberations of loss of energy continues, and will remain for decades hence, to be a problem
  • Fear - while effective for the short term, is never a basis for long-term business planning.  But power through unilateral imposition of decisions from on high, has been the primary tool of upper management in deciding to cut off the loyal workforce of those very Postal Workers who sacrificed their bodies in the course of doing their jobs.

     In such a climate, one must take one’s future into one’s own hands.  Waiting for the U.S. Postal Service to act in the best interests of the Postal Worker is an act of vacuous futility.  Federal Disability Retirement is the option which the U.S. Postal Worker should consider, precisely because it allows for a viable alternative for the future.  Waiting for a corporate entity which has already revealed its underlying motivations – of opting to forego fair treatment to the workers who do the actual day-to-day work which allows for a profitable venture; of deciding that short-term profits are more important than long-term growth of worker loyalty and a motivated workforce; of failing to see the value of the Postal Worker who has subjected himself to the human sacrifice of injury, despair, and a lifetime of debilitated medical conditions; to wait for such an entity to act in the best interests of the Postal Worker would indeed be a foolish endeavor.  Instead, what is necessary is to recognize that the future is now, and the now requires an affirmative step in moving forward beyond the U.S. Postal Service.

     Fortunately, for the U.S. Postal Worker, there is an option – that of preparing, formulating and filing for Federal Disability Retirement from the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, whether under FERS or CSRS.  The deceptive attractiveness of remaining on the rolls of OWCP must be recognized:  OWCP is not a retirement system, and was never intended for such.  For those Postal Workers who are still on the rolls of OWCP, and have not been separated from the rolls of the U.S. Postal Service, filing for Federal Disability Retirement should be considered with the recognition that OWCP will not last forever.  For those who have already been separated from service, one has only 12 months from the date of separation to file for Federal Disability Retirement benefits from the U.S. Office of Personnel Management. 

     Regardless of one’s employment status, today’s Postal Worker must always keep in mind that OWCP should be considered within the context of its intended benefit:  as a temporary compensatory program, and not as a retirement system.  To retire based upon a medical condition, the viable alternative is to file for Federal Disability Retirement benefits from the U.S. Office of Personnel Management.

 

The Postal Worker and Federal Disability Retirement Today: Longer Hours, More Repetitive Strain, and Less Loyalty from Above

    Animals are by nature suspicious of strangers; it is only the human who, by a smile and a kind word, will embrace a stranger.  And, even if he is stabbed in the back, more often than not, he will attribute the pain to an accidental and excusable act of negligence; and so we are left with a gullible population of saints – or fools, depending upon one’s viewpoint. 

                                    — from, A Human Perspective

    U.S. Postal employees have the most difficult of jobs:  the repetitive nature of the craft duties; the constant bending and lifting, placing an extraordinary strain upon the knees, neck and back; turning and twisting; casing of mail; pushing, pulling; performing maintenance; climbing ladders; entering and exiting a vehicle; walking and standing – the full gamut of such strain upon the musculoskeletal, joints and musculature; not even referring to the mental and emotional strains which are placed by time pressures, working cooperatively with coworkers; responding professionally to supervisors, unreasonable postmasters, irrational customers and all throughout, processing and delivering thousands upon tens of thousands of pieces of mail on a daily basis. 

     Yes, there is the specific compensation program – under the Federal Employees’ Compensation Act (FECA), administered through the Department of Labor (DOL), Office of Workers’ Compensation Programs (OWCP) – which is structured and set up precisely to address the injuries which are incurred as a result of such occupational-related medical conditions, whether directly (as in an injury occurring during the course of one’s day on the job) or as a hazard inherently related to the occupation itself (which should, theoretically, encapsulate such repetitive-type injuries, related to overuse and chronic medical conditions resulting from the combination of time, repetition and duration).   But more often than not, doctors are unable to specifically relate a particular medical condition to one’s occupation – arthritis does not, in all instances and for everyone, necessarily occur in people who engage in arduous repetitive tasks; Patellofemoral Syndrome does not always and in all cases manifest itself for Letter Carriers, Mail Handlers, etc.; and multiple other types of progressively debilitating medical conditions occur in the general population at large – just not in exponentially explosive multiples of occurrences which might lead one to conclude a causally-related factor.  But without the causality factor proven, what is the avenue remaining for a Postal Worker who can no longer perform one or more of the essential elements of his or her job?

     The fact is that the Postal Worker today must work longer, harder, and under greater time constraints, supervision and oversight, with constant and incessant harassment from management, coworkers and customers, than anytime in the past.  The pay scale for Postal workers continues to lag behind and deepen, while the overuse and repetitive nature of the work only increases.  While newer mail processing machines are supposed to make way for greater efficiency, the muscles, joints, bones and spinal column of the Postal Worker must endure the identical strains and pressures, except at higher speeds, greater volume, and with added stress. 

     In a society which has seen the exponential explosion of psychiatric disabilities, including Major Depression, Anxiety, panic attacks, paranoia, schizophrenia, Bipolar disorder, and a myriad of attendant symptomatolgoies, the high pressure, high technology world without conducive interpersonal interaction and coordination between management, mid-level supervisors and the craft employees, only results in the greater devastation of the physical and psychiatric condition of today’s Postal Worker.

     Federal Disability Retirement benefits, whether under FERS or CSRS, is a disability annuity which exists for the Postal employee, precisely because the particular job of the Postal Employee is one which is susceptible to a medical condition or disability.   Of course, OWCP/DOL is a compensation program which is there for the Postal employee, also, but the whole point under FECA is to try and return the injured employee back to his or her job.  But in recent years, several factors have interceded to make the Worker’s Compensation benefit an irrelevancy, if not a cruel irony played upon the Postal Worker by the gods of fate:  under the National Reassessment Program (NRP), the U.S. Postal Service no longer wants the rehabilitated Postal Worker to come back, and further, the Department of labor doesn’t want to have to keep paying the injured Postal Worker for injuries which are supposedly preventing the Postal Worker from performing all of the essential elements of his or her job.

     The process of filing for, and retaining the benefits of, Federal Worker’s Compensation benefits, is one replete with constant battles with the Department of Labor.   A single refusal to do what OWCP mandates the Postal Worker to do can result in a termination of benefits.  The Postal Worker who is on the OWCP rolls is in a state of perpetual limbo – for, while the benefit itself pays a fairly decent rate (75% for those with dependents; 66 2/3% for those without) and is not taxed, one cannot work at another job while receiving such benefits.   And then there is the danger of prosecution for defrauding the Federal Government – backed by numerous cases in which hundreds of hours of videotaping edited down to a couple of minutes, showing a person performing some kind of physical task which is medically restricted.  When faced with the threat of considerable jail time, a plea bargain involving loss of benefits, forfeiture of future claims, the high cost of hiring a defense attorney, etc., is the normal course of events for the Postal Worker.

     This is not only a tough job, but an unsympathetic world.  Federal Disability Retirement benefits from the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, whether under FERS or CSRS, is always an option for the Postal employee.  While the National Reassessment Program continues to send people home by asserting an “unavailability of work based upon a thorough review of the medical condition and the inability of the U.S. Postal Service to accommodate such medical conditions,” the attempt to throw all Postal Workers who are not able to perform 100% of the essential elements of the position onto the OWCP rolls – while it may be an effective way for the U.S. Postal Service to shed its payroll of all injured employees – is not a road to the future for the Craft Employee. 

     Federal Disability Retirement allows the Postal Worker two great benefits which OWCP will not offer:  A.  Flexibility to engage in another occupation while receiving a disability retirement annuity, and B.  An ability to build for the future.  Yes, OWCP benefits pays more.  Yes, OWCP benefits are non-taxable.  But if the Postal Worker of today is thinking about building a future for tomorrow, the world of limbo, of perpetual fear of someone watching (or videotaping) you; and being fearful of having some second or third opinion doctor suddenly determine that you are perfectly fit to return to full duty, is simply not in the best interests for the long term.

     A Federal Disability Retirement annuity will pay 60% of the average of one’s highest three consecutive years of service for the first year, then 40% every year thereafter, until age 62.  During the time that one is receiving a Federal Disability Retirement annuity, the Postal Worker can go out and make up to 80% of what one’s former position currently pays.  Such flexibility is a foundation for a future.  Moreover, it will allow for the needed period of rehabilitative convalescence, while considering alternative options for the future.

Federal Disability Retirement for the U.S. Postal Service: What it is and Why the Benefit is Necessary

     How well must a man know his neighbor before he sheds a tear?  Does a man possess humanity merely because he walks upright and speaks well?  What is the gauge, the calculus, the determining factor, as to whether human beings have advanced?  Is it the extent of mechanization, how fast we can travel, how beautiful our technology is designed?  If a man fails to shed a tear, is he more advanced because he possesses less of an ability to exhibit his emotions?  When does a man stop representing humanity?  Or, shall we alter the named designation, and perhaps reorder our self-conception of what it means for us to “be human”?

                                                            From, Questions to Ponder in Human Terms

     Postal Workers hold a unique position in the workforce.  While the timeless image of the postman walking with a friendly smile may be a fading memory, replaced by community mailboxes situated at the end of the cul-de-sac, curbside mailboxes (and various other methods to distance any intrusion into the antiseptic lives of each neighborhood), the daily contact with the U.S. Postal Service still pervades.  Despite electronic methods of replacement, email, texting, tweeting, and multiple other means of communication, the letter which arrives is still sorted, processed, transported and delivered by people – those who work at the U.S. Postal Service.

     The five minutes out of the week, month or year when the average person sees a Postal employee – perhaps the Window Clerk when tax time comes around; perhaps to send something overnight; or to renew a passport – whatever the reason, such limited contact fails to betray the extent and toll of how physical and stressful the U.S. Postal jobs are.  Considering the medical impact upon one’s neck, back, shoulders, knees, wrists, etc., it is important to recognize the type of positional duties that the Postal Clerk, Letter Carrier, Mail Handler, various Motor Vehicle Operators, Heavy Equipment Operators, Expediters, or Mail Processing Clerks, among many other craft employees, must engage in on a daily basis.  The wear and tear upon the physical body; the daily stresses and mental toll resulting from time pressures, shortage of workers, overtime requirements, difficult interpersonal engagement between Supervisors, Managers and Craft employees; customer services communications; and the daily pressures of rigorous work in a fast-paced, competitive environment.  Criticism abounds these days about the Neanderthal status of the U.S. Postal Service, and some of it may be justified.  Yet, whether justified or not, it has nothing to do with the type of physical, emotional and psychological impact that the daily positional duties have upon individual lives.

     Or, take the Postmaster of a small postal facility – the one who must fill in for the craft employees, work the customer service window, and perform the daily administrative duties in repetitive, unrelenting fashion on a daily basis, with reduction and attrition of the workforce, without replacement workers to fill in for absences, sick leave, annual leave, etc.  Or the Rural Carrier who must twist and turn one’s upper body, grasping, turning and reaching to place bundles of mail into mail boxes, mile after endless mile.  It is, indeed, a miracle that the human body can withstand such repetitive wearing upon muscular tissue, bone structure, nerve endings, layers of cartilage, etc., and year after year, be able to allow the individual to perform the progressively deteriorating repetitive functions which are required by the Postal Service.  We haven’t even mentioned the constant walking, mile upon mile, of the letter carrier; the walking up and down stairs, steps; of entering and exiting a motor vehicle repeatedly throughout the day.

     Federal Disability Retirement benefits are a needed benefit for all Postal employees, precisely because of the unique type of physical, emotional and psychological requirements of the craft, supervisor and managerial positions at the U.S. Postal Service.   The human toll is something which the public, casual, limited and fleeting in its contact with the Postal employee, is unaware of, and unable to comprehend in its magnification of repetitive tasks throughout the course of processing, distributing and delivering of that piece of mail which arrives at the doorstep. 

     One might pose the query as to why the Federal Employees’ Compensation Act, administered by the Office of Worker’s Compensation Program (OWCP) under the aegis of the Department of Labor, is not sufficient to adequately compensate Postal employees when they are injured on the job.  It may well be.  But the problem is that not every medical condition can be causally proven to be related directly to the human toll resulting from the daily, repetitive, pounding deterioration by the type of Postal work and duties required.  Consider the following hypothetical:  A Mail Handler who is 48 years old and who has been working at his job for 25 years is moving a piece of furniture at the direction of his spouse.  In the course of lifting, he feels a sudden “pull” in his back, and is forced to sit down.  The piece of furniture remains in the middle of the room somewhat askew, evident that a job has been left incomplete.  The MRI reveals a disc protrusion at L5-S1, with multi-level disc degeneration, chronic pain, and radiating pain and numbness extending to his extremities.  The emergency room notes reflect the history of the medical occurrence:  “…while moving heavy furniture…”  But is that truly the causal connection?  Did the 25 years of constant bending, lifting, reaching, pulling, pushing, grasping, etc., have no medical significance, no cumulative effect?  The doctor could not relate the multi-level disc degeneration and chronic pain to his work.  OWCP, in any event, would deny such a claim outright, asserting unequivocally:  “No causal connection could be found between your medical condition and the nature, origin and type of medical injury from which you suffer.”

     In real life, the Postal Worker who suffers from the hypothetical as described above, would have no viable alternative means to securing a livelihood.  The U.S. Postal Service, under the present National Reassessment Program, would refuse to accommodate such a Postal Worker, and would send him/her home, stating that, “After a full review, it has been determined by the District Reasonable Accommodation Committee that no suitable work can be found within the limitations imposed by your medical condition, and therefore the U.S. Postal Service is unable to accommodate you.” 

     Such hypotheticals are not mere imaginary flights of fancy; they in fact occur, and all too frequently.  That is why Federal Disability Retirement is a needed benefit for the U.S. Postal Worker.  Federal Disability Retirement is a benefit, however, which must be proven by a preponderance of the evidence to the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, that the medical condition suffered by the Postal Worker, whether under FERS or CSRS (A) prevents him or her from performing one or more of the essential elements of the job, (B) that the medical condition is expected to last for a minimum of 12 months or more, and (C) that, whether suffered on or off the job, related to the job or not, the Postal Worker has a minimum of 18 months of Federal Service under FERS, and a minimum of 5 years of Federal Service under CSRS.

     Federal Disability Retirement benefits pays a Postal Worker 60% of the average of his or her highest-3 consecutive years for the first year of annuity, then 40% every year thereafter, until age 62, at which point the annuity it recalculated based upon the total number of years of service (including the years one is receiving Federal Disability Retirement benefits).  It is, however, a benefit which must be proven, and as such, is not an “entitlement”, but a benefit which must be secured by sufficient medical evidence, adequate knowledge of the governing laws, and a clear nexus between one’s medical condition and the essential elements of one’s job.

Postal Employees, FERS & CSRS Disability Retirement, the National Reassessment Process, and a Sense of Betrayal

     Is loyalty a man-made convention?  Is it merely the creation of lords and kings to fool the populace into supporting a mirage?  For, cannot loyalty be purchased?  Cannot the powerful grant enough gratuities to garner the loyalty of the guardsmen?  Ah, but will such loyalty last, or will it wait in the quiet of nightfall to see from whom a better price might be paid?  Such loyalty shifts like the sands of summer.  A convention built upon a convention will indeed crumble.  Loyalty must be built upon character, and character upon the integrity and reputation of a man over his entire lifetime.

    – From, Kings and Noblemen

 

     Having spoken to thousands of Postal employees over the past decade, the common thread which runs throughout the conversations concerning preparing and filing a Federal Disability Retirement application under FERS & CSRS, is an undertone of resignation, resentment and realization towards a corporate culture of disloyalty and distrust.  The Postal Worker today is expected to be hyper-efficient, to work and produce more within a restrictively prescribed timeframe, to perform with optimal productivity, and concurrently to maintain a resonance of familiarity, small-town folksiness, and a service-oriented courteousness in communities across the United States. 

     In a competitive economy which has had to weather the advent of faxes, emails, attachments to emails, etc.; where Federal and State bureaucracies have expressed long-range goals to attain a “paperless” system of administrative processing; and where budget cuts and complaints about the public sector wasteland of taxpayer funds has reached a critical mass of citizen revolt; within the context of such economic, financial, technological and bureaucratic turmoil, the U.S. Postal Service has been expected to remain “competitive”.  But “competitive” can be interpreted in different ways.  Unfortunately, in the prevailing corporate culture, it is always gauged and measured in the short term, based upon quarterly financial projections.  What happens 5 or 10 years hence is an irrelevancy; whether the U.S. Postal Service posts a profit or a loss in the next quarter is the quantifying meter of success or failure.

     Management often gives lip service about how they benefit from “listening” to the workers that constitute the backbone of the U.S. Postal Service – the Letter Carriers, Clerks, Maintenance workers, Mechanics, and even some mid-level supervisors.  But listening without resultant actions is merely an attitude of patronizing vacuity.  Listening must be purposive and purposeful; and if the National Reassessment Process is the best that the U.S. Postal Service can come up with as the solution to maintain the corporate competitive edge in this complex, technological universe, then “listening” had absolutely no positive impact upon Management.

     The National Reassessment Process has been a devastating disaster – both for those affected, and upon the viability and survival of the U.S. Postal Service.  America’s binary strength and weakness has always been its ability to move beyond the present crisis, and to adapt quickly to the vicissitudes of economic turmoil.  But the flip side is that corporations, bureaucracies and organizations look to the short term as the metric for success; long-term planning results in a future-oriented view for the survival of the company.  One only needs to, by way of metaphor and analogy, look at how the architecture of churches has evolved over the past 2 centuries.  Once, they were built to last for centuries; now, they are constructed to survive the present lifespan.

     The U.S. Postal Service is on a path of progressive deterioration and self-destruction.  The National Reassessment Process is simply a symptom and indicator of that destruction.  By openly discarding all Postal workers with medical conditions, disabilities and physical limitations, by asserting that there is no identifiable work available for such workers, and to expect all such workers to file for and be placed on the compensation rolls of the Office of Worker’s Compensation Programs, they have accomplished two (2) goals:  First, they have succeeded in disheartening the entire workforce by declaring that loyalty to the organization is no longer a consideration of employment, and Second, that there is no long-term plan for the Postal Service to survive in this economy, and only the short-term, quarterly profitability margins will be relevant. 

     For, ultimately, the long-term viability of an organization is dependent upon the loyalty of its workforce.  Loyalty must be fostered and groomed.  It is, moreover, a tenuous and sensitive element of a business culture – one of those intangible business assets which cannot be quantified by quarterly profit reports, but through the economic indicators of productivity measures, over several years.  By undermining the essence of loyalty – of how an organization treats its employees both during profitable times, as well as through trying economic downturns, and especially how it attempts to meet its employee obligations when a worker gets injured or suffers from a medical condition – the U.S. Postal Service has effectively spelled out its own future.

     Fortunately, all Postal workers fall under the Federal system of FERS (Federal Employees Retirement System) or CSRS (Civil Service Retirement System), which includes Federal Disability Retirement benefits.  While the National Reassessment Process attempts to force all Postal Workers to file for the Department of Labor, Office of Worker’s Compensation Program benefits, the problem with OWCP is that it is not a retirement system, and will not last forever.  As has been stated previously on many occasions, OWCP is a system of compensation intended to rehabilitate the Postal employee for a prescribed, limited amount of time, on a temporary basis, in order to return the Postal Worker back to its formerly productive job.  During the time that a Postal employee is receiving Temporary Total Disability, he or she cannot work at another job, and earn any wages – even if the worker wanted to. 

     Federal Disability Retirement benefits is a viable alternative to OWCP benefits – but an alternative which does not necessarily need to be viewed as a strict dichotomy (i.e., either Worker’s Comp or Federal Disability Retirement benefits), but a benefit which can be seen as a “back-up” system if and when OWCP benefits are terminated.  If a Postal Worker (or any Federal worker, for that matter), suffers from a medical condition which will last a minimum of 12 months, and the medical condition prevents one from performing one or more of the essential elements of one’s job, then it is time to file for Federal Disability Retirement benefits under FERS or CSRS.  For the Postal Worker who is, or will shortly, fall under the National Reassessment Process, the “writing on the wall” is indeed already in print:  The U.S. Postal Service doesn’t have a future for you, and it is time to consider filing for, and obtaining, Federal Disability Retirement benefits under FERS or CSRS.  The future is now – for the Postal Service employee, to think of another career; for the corporate culture of the U.S. Postal Service, to remain in red ink for the foreseeable future.

Federal Disability Retirement benefits for Postal Employees: The OWCP Option versus OPM

The National Reassessment Program’s (NRP) primary option for Postal employees who are not “fully productive” (interpretation:  anyone who cannot perform the full panoply of all of the essential elements of one’s job) is for the Postal employee to file for OWCP benefits.  A letter from the NRP will allegedly state that they have searched for all available work and have concluded that the Postal Service is unable to accommodate the Postal employee based upon the medical conditions identified.  The option:  file for benefits from the Department of Labor, Officer of Workers’ Compensation Programs.

Complacency allows for a period of peacefulness and peace of mind.  The operative concept (and critical juncture of concern) is that such peace of mind exists “for a period” of time.  OWCP compensation – designed as a mechanism to allow for a Postal employee to recuperate from an injury or a medical condition incurred while “on the job” or during the course of performing his or her occupational duties – is primarily meant for a temporary period of time.  Thus, TTD (temporary total disability) payments are made to Postal employees during the time of medical treatment and temporary disability, with the goal being that the Postal employee will return to work.  Further, compensation for the permanent disability suffered (identified as a “scheduled award”) is determined once a Postal employee has reached “Maximum Medical Improvement”, and when a percentage disability rating can be ascribed to an individual.  The paradigm of OWCP is therefore based upon the projected conceptual framework that it is temporary, compensatory for a set period of time, in order to allow for the eventual return of a Postal worker to his or her craft duties.

The reality of the situation, of course, is that many Postal workers in every craft imaginable – Letter Carriers (Rural or City), Mail Handlers, Mail Processing Clerks, Maintenance Workers, Sales, Service & Distribution Clerks, etc. – can be placed (and have been placed) on OWCP rolls and often “forgotten” for years, and sometimes decades (note the plural).  Such long-term payments, generous by some standards (75% of the gross salary for those with dependents; 66 2/3% for those without), can lead to a sense of complacency and comfort.

The problem with complacency and comfort, however, is that a Postal Worker can remain on the rolls of OWCP, receive the “temporary total disability” payments for years and years, and suddenly be informed that he or she is no longer disabled, has recovered, and therefore is no longer entitled to OWCP compensation. Perhaps the Postal Worker is directed to undergo an “Independent Medical Examination” – identified, compensated by, and directed to, by the Department of Labor, Office of Workers’ Compensation Programs – to determine the feasibility of going back to work, and to establish the extent of the disability (if any).  Suddenly, the Postal worker who has enjoyed the complacency of being on the OWCP rolls for these many years sees a sudden termination of benefits.  Yes, there are appeal procedures.  Yes, there are recourses and the right to have a “referee doctor” make a further determination.  But after months of such appeals (during which time the former Postal Worker has received no compensation), while reinstatement of TTD benefits may become a reality, one often realizes that OWCP is not a permanent solution – precisely because it was never designed or meant to be such.

The further option that every Postal Worker must consider, of course, is to prepare, formulate, and file for Post Office Disability Retirement benefits under either FERS or CSRS, from the Office of Personnel Management.  This can be done concurrently with receiving and being on the rolls of OWCP – by filing for Federal Disability Retirement benefits, then opting to stay on OWCP and placing the approved Federal Disability Retirement annuity into an “inactive” status – as a back-up system in the event of termination of OWCP benefits.

The problem of complacency in receiving OWCP benefits is that there are too many Postal Workers who are unaware of the distinction between OWCP and OPM Disability Retirement.  The mere fact that OPM Disability Retirement pays less than OWCP benefits is not a reason not to file – if not to replace OWCP benefits, then to at least obtain them as a back-up to OWCP.  Failing to file for the benefits in a timely manner results in foregoing – forever -the right to file for such benefits.  At some point, Postal Workers on the rolls of OWCP become “separated from Federal Service” – meaning thereby that the Postal Service takes the Postal Worker off from the rolls, stops sending the “0-balance” paystubs, and issues a PS Form 50 of generating an administrative personnel action separating the Postal employee from the U.S. Postal Service and the Federal Service.  At that point of separation, the Postal Worker has 1-year to file for Federal Disability Retirement benefits under either FERS or CSRS, from the Office of Personnel Management.  Failure to file within that 1-year timeframe results in abdicating a right to ever file.  Then, many years later, when that letter arrives from the Department of Labor directing the Postal Worker to undergo an “Independent Medical Examination” by a doctor who seemingly is a Fellow and Member of every qualifying medical association, and is compensated by OWCP for his time and energy – the Postal Worker’s concerns about possible termination of benefits will not only become a reality, but a potential financial crisis.

Further, if a Postal Worker wants to work at another job, one who is on OWCP is unable to do so.  On the other hand, those who receive a Federal Disability Retirement annuity from the Office of Personnel Management are, under the law, allowed to go out and make up to 80% of what one’s former Postal job currently pays – on top of the Federal Disability Retirement annuity one receives.  Thus, while OWCP payments often engender complacency, there is a built-in incentive to the Postal Worker to prepare, formulate, and file for Federal Disability Retirement benefits from the Office of Personnel Management – and then to start a second career, while having the time on disability retirement count towards the total number of years of Federal Service, so that when the disability annuity is recalculated at age 62 and converted to regular retirement, the time on disability retirement is counted.

These are all factors which must be thoughtfully considered.  Whatever the decision made, a Postal employee who fails to understand the distinctions between OWCP and OPM Disability Retirement may rue the day sometime in the future – far or near, one never knows based upon the capricious whim of the Department of Labor, Office of Workers’ Compensation Programs – when that termination letter arrives in the mailbox.  All options should be considered, and preparing, formulating and filing for OPM Disability Retirement benefits is an option which should not only be “considered”, but concretely filed for.

The Postal Treadmill: Taking the option of Federal Disability Retirement

     For many years, the U.S. Postal Service has allowed its workers to remain productive by fashioning limited duty, modified positions for injured employees who were unable to perform all of the essential elements of the job.  To a great extent, those prior years of apparent accommodation (“apparent”, because such modified job offers were never legally sufficient accommodations) were analogous to a treadmill:  So long as the speed of the treadmill allowed for the Postal Worker to perform at his or her pace, consistent with the medical restrictions as allowed for in a “Modified Job Offer” or a “Limited Duty Job” as crafted in cooperation between (usually) three parties – the Postal Worker, the U.S. Postal Service, and the Department of Labor, Office of Worker’s Compensation – the injured Postal Worker was able to perform his or her job well, and remain productive. 

     Times have changed.

     With the accelerated initiation and imposition of the National Reassessment Program, the Postal Treadmill has rapidly increased to exponential speeds, to the extent that most Postal Workers who have occupied a “Modified” or “Light Duty” position are asked to get off the working treadmill completely, and go home.  While filing for OWCP benefits is an option, such payments are tenuous and temporary at best, and at worst, will be denied. While Worker’s Compensation benefits pay well, the issue for the Postal Worker sent home because the U.S. Postal Service has found that a “search of its available positions” all of a sudden has resulted in a failure to find “available work” for the injured Postal Worker, is whether or not such a Postal Worker may qualify for Federal Disability Retirement benefits under FERS or CSRS.

     The short answer to that question is, “Yes, in all likelihood”.

     The Postal Worker needs to understand that, even during the time that he or she was working at a “Modified Job”, or a “Limited Duty”, that same Postal Worker was always qualified and eligible for Federal Disability Retirement under FERS or CSRS.

     How could this be?

     A person who is working in a “temporary” light duty position was never technically  “reassigned” to a new permanent position.   That same Postal Worker continued to remain in the same official job-slot, as reflected by the PS Form 50.  As such, the “Modified” or “Light Duty” job was always just a fiction.  It was a “made-up” position.  The fact that under the National Reassessment Program, the U.S. Postal Service could all of a sudden do away with all such positions, only proves the point:  There never existed a “Modified” or “Light Duty” position; it was always the same position, but on a separate piece of paper, the three parties involved – the Postal Worker, the Department of Labor/Office of Worker’s Compensation, and the U.S. Postal Service – simply “made up” the fictional position. 

     There is legal precedent already in place which establishes that a Postal Worker who occupied a modified or light-duty position is nevertheless eligible for Federal Disability Retirement benefits.  It was addressed by the Federal Circuit Court in Bracey v. Office of Personnel Management, 236 F.3d 1356, 1358 (Fed. Cir. 2001) — a case which I have previously discussed on many occasions, but one which is important to go over again.  In the case of Bracey, the Federal Circuit Court outlined the applicable provisions governing disability retirement, saying that “the pertinent OPM regulation elaborates on the statutory definition by providing that an employee is eligible for disability retirement only if (1) the disabling medical condition is expected to continue for at least one year; (2) the condition results in a deficiency in performance, conduct, or attendance, or is incompatible with useful and efficient service or retention in the employee’s position; and (3) the agency is unable to accommodate the disabling condition in the employee’s position or in an existing vacant position.” 

     It is this last point (Number 3) which is important to ponder and consider.  For, if the Agency is unable to accommodate the Postal Worker, and being placed in a “Modified” or “Light Duty” position does not constitute an “accommodation” (because there never was such a position to begin with), then the Postal Worker would be eligible for Federal Disability Retirement benefits under FERS or CSRS (assuming that all other criteria of eligibility are met).

     Let us consider this further.  In Bracey, the Court clearly stated that an employee must be reassigned to a “vacant” position, and not one which was merely “made up”, in order for such reassignment to be an “accommodation”.  The Court went on to say:

     “We Agree with Mr. Bracey that OPM’s argument fails, because the term “vacant position” in section 8337 refers to an officially established position that is graded and classified, not to an informal assignment of work that an agency gives to an employee who cannot perform the duties of his official position.  A ‘position’ in the federal employment system is required to be classified and graded in accordance with the duties, responsibilities, and qualification requirements associated with it.”  Id. at p. 1359
Then, the Court went on to state that the term “vacant position” means “something that is definite and already in existence rather than an unclassified set of duties devised to meet the needs of a particular employee who cannot perform the duties of his official position.”  Id. at 1360.

     This is precisely what has occurred to the Postal Worker on the treadmill all of these many years – of NOT being reassigned to a new permanent position, but merely working in a temporary, light duty position. Furthermore, for the Postal Worker, the case of Ancheta v. Office of Personnel Management, 95 M.S.P.R. 343,  10, 12-14 (2003) clarifies it even more, where the Board held that a modified job in the Postal Service that does not “comprise the core functions of an existing position” is not a “position” or a “vacant position” for purposes of determining eligibility for disability retirement. The Board noted that a “modified” job in the Postal Service may include “‘subfunctions’ culled from various positions that are tailored to the employee’s specific medical restrictions,” and thus may not constitute “an identifiable position when the employee for whom the assignment was created is not assigned to those duties.” Id.,  14. The Board thus suggested that a “modified” job in the Postal Service generally would not constitute a “position” or a “vacant position.” Id.

     Sound familiar?  Sound like the Postal Worker who has been sent home under the National Reassessment Program?  For the Postal Worker who has been occupying a Modified or Light Duty position all of these many years, you may have thought that you were in an “official” position.  If that were the case, then that same Postal Worker would not be able to be sent home today.  The reality is that no such position ever existed.  The Postal Worker was never in an “official” position, other than the position which he or she always occupied:  that position which required you to perform all of the essential elements of a Clerk, a Letter Carrier, a Rural Carrier, a Mail Processing Clerk, a Distribution Clerk, a Mail Handler, an Electronic Technician, a Maintenance worker, a Sales, Service & Distribution Clerk, etc.

     But since the Postal Worker on the daily treadmill was never able to perform all of the essential elements of the “official position”, it logically follows that the Postal Worker was always eligible – even throughout the entire time of working in a “Modified” or “Light Duty” position – to file for Federal Disability Retirement under FERS or CSRS.  Thus, for the Postal Worker who has been sent home, or is in danger of being sent home, because of the National Reassessment Program, a viable option to consider is to file for Federal Disability Retirement under FERS or CSRS.  You were always eligible; you just didn’t know it.

National Reassessment Program

       Postal Workers call me daily inquiring about the viability of filing for Federal Disability Retirement benefits under FERS or CSRS. Often, it is in response to the U.S. Postal Service’s initiation of actions resulting from the NRP. The “National Reassessment Program” (which is neither a “program” designed with any rational basis, nor a “reassessment” of anything but an attempt to shed all workers from the rolls of the U.S. Postal Service who are not fully productive and capable; but, alas, at least the term “National” does seem true) is designed to, in a heartlessly methodical manner, do the following:

A. Inform the targeted Postal Worker of the unavailability of work.

B. Force the Postal Worker to begin receiving benefits from FECA (OWCP) .

C. Begin a process of “vocational rehabilitation” – a euphemism for trying to locate a private sector job – any job – that you might qualify for.

D. Get you off of OWCP rolls once you are determined to be “suited” to the private sector job.

      The above applies on the assumption that you have a FECA (OWCP) accepted claim. If you do not have an OWCP-accepted claim, then only “A” above applies to you, and you will essentially be sent home without the “benefit” of “B – D”.

       All sectors – Federal and State Government, and private sector jobs – “downsize” during economically challenging times. In this economy, where job growth is stagnant and budgets are being squeezed more and more each fiscal year, the U.S. Postal Service is attempting to shed its payrolls of all workers who are not “fully productive”. With the latest numbers showing that the first quarter of 2010 left the U.S. Postal Service with a revenue decline of 3.9% resulting in a net loss of $297 million, the onerous steps as envisioned under the National Reassessment Program will only accelerate.

      The NRP is a “controlling” mechanism. The methodology of the program is to make the Postal Worker financially dependent upon OWCP payments and once dependent, to dictate the terms of the “vocational rehabilitation” such that you have no choice in the matter. In comparison to Federal Disability Retirement benefits, it certainly pays more (with a dependent, 75% tax free; without a dependent, 66 2/3% tax free, as opposed to Federal Disability Retirement benefits which pays 60% of the average of one’s highest three consecutive years the first year, then 40% every year thereafter under FERS, all of which is taxable). But the freedom which one gives up by submitting to the NRP Program is precisely what is intolerable.

       Many Postal Workers turn to Federal Disability Retirement benefits in lieu of FECA – or, at the very least, file for and obtain an approval for Federal Disability Retirement benefits as a “back-up” system to FECA. In comparison to the “benefits” under FECA (OWCP), Federal Disability Retirement benefits under FERS (and, similarly, under CSRS, although the percentage of benefits under CSRS remains static) provides the following:

A. It is a retirement system – so that one is actually separated from Federal Service, and further, except for the potential of a Medical Questionnaire every two years (if you are randomly selected), the disability annuitant is not under constant scrutiny

B. An individual Federal Disability Retirement annuitant is allowed to become employed in the private sector and make up to 80% of what one’s former Federal or Postal position currently pays, in addition to the disability annuity

C. An individual under Federal Disability Retirement is not dependent upon the often arbitrary and capricious decision-making process of OWCP. It allows one to decide and determine the future course of one’s life.

       Ultimately, the National Reassessment Program will impact you, the injured Postal Worker, whether today, next week, or a year from now. If self-determination is an important element of your life, then it is wise to take steps today, and to affirmatively make choices soon, before you attempt to go to work one day and are sent home with a letter stating, “There is no work available for you”. Or, you may not even receive the courtesy of a letter.

       The Postal Worker is probably unaware of one additional fact: all these years while the Postal Worker has been in a “Modified” light-duty position, while the U.S. Postal Service “accommodated” the worker by allowing for temporary positions at less than full duty requirements – all these years, that Postal Worker was eligible and entitled to Federal Disability Retirement benefits under FERS or CSRS. You may simply have not known this, but being allowed to work in a “light duty” status, or in a “Modified Position”, was never a legally-sufficient accommodation under the law. (See Bracey v. Office of Personnel Management, 236 F.3d 1356 , Fed. Cir. 2001, as well as my related articles on the subject¹). During these years, the system worked in a crippled way — injured workers were allowed to continue to work, and the economy allowed the U.S. Postal Service to trudge along – albeit at a yearly loss.

       Today, however, choices must be made. The National Reassessment Program is here in your neighborhood, and it is no longer allowing for the old system to continue unabated. If you are contemplating filing for Federal Disability Retirement benefits under FERS or CSRS, now is the right time. To wait is to delay the inevitable; to ignore the inevitable is to allow the circumstances to dictate your future.

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¹ The Bracey Decision and other resources published by attorney Robert R. McGill:

a) Brief legal analysis of non-statutory laws: The Bracey Decision.

b) Blogs that mention Bracey v. Office of Personnel Management:

c) Some articles that also mention Bracey v. Office of Personnel Management:

d) Miscellaneous posts: