The Postal Treadmill: Taking the option of USPS 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.

The Postal Worker Today: Choices, FERS & CSRS Disability Retirement, and Protecting one’s Future

     Hypothetical:  A U.S. Postal Worker has been working for the past 7 years in a modified position.  Seven years ago, he injured himself on the job; he filed for OWCP benefits, had surgery, and returned some months later in a position within the same Craft, but modified to fit his medical restrictions and limitations.  By all accounts, he has been a productive worker.   Without warning, one day the Postal Worker is called into the office, interviewed, reassured, then escorted from the facility and informed that there is no longer any work for him to do, and that, by the way, “You can file for Worker’s Comp.” 

     Can such a hypothetical occur?

     The reality is that, under the National Reassessment Program (NRP), such a hypothetical is not a fictional instance of someone’s imaginative fantasy; rather, it is a reality which is occurring today. 

     In the world of the U.S. Postal Service and the injured worker who has one or more medical conditions such that he or she has restrictions or limitations which prevent one from performing the full panoply of the duties as outlined in the Position Description, there is no such thing as “bilateral loyalty”.  Bilateral loyalty goes like this:  You give your life to the organization, and the organization will be loyal to you.  The reality is the opposite:  You give your life to the organization, and if you can’t do the full duties of your bid job, you will no longer have a job with us.  The latter is termed, “unilateral loyalty” (i.e., kill yourself for our sake, and we’ll get rid of you if we find that you cannot perform the full duties of your position).

     Whether you are a City Letter Carrier, a Rural Carrier, a Mail Handler, Mail Processing Clerk, Distribution Clerk, Sales & Service Associate, Supervisor of a large, small, or mid-sized facility, or even a Postmaster – if you cannot perform the full duties of your position, your are in danger of being “downsized” (i.e., a euphemism for being terminated, or otherwise denied work).

     Are there solutions to the hypothetical-turned-reality in the world of layoffs, and in light of the National Reassessment Program?  There are multiple problems which continue to arise in the scenario as described above:  OWCP is not a retirement system, and their rolls are being scrutinized with greater regularity, and the eligibility standards appear to be tightening ever more.  Can one file for unemployment benefits even though the Postal Worker is still officially on “the rolls” of the U.S. Postal Service?  Will the Postal Service separate you from service, or will they wait for a year, keeping you on LWOP?  And how about Health Insurance benefits – will the Postal Service continue to maintain the premiums so that you will not lose your Health Insurance benefits?

     In the end, each Postal Worker – in whatever Craft or position one is in – must make decisions which are financially beneficial to the self-interest of the individual.  The term “self-interest” is not meant to be used as a pejorative or negative term – for, that is precisely how the U.S. Postal Service views the entire matter from their perspective – from the organizational self-interest.

     Thus, whether an individual Postal Worker, in any given Craft, suffers from a medical condition or disability – whether psychiatric or physical – he or she must protect and secure one’s financial future.  Filing for Federal Disability Retirement under FERS or CSRS is a viable option which allows for the Postal Worker to retire, receive a monthly annuity, retain the Health Insurance benefits from the Federal System, and go on to find other employment and be allowed to earn up to 80% of what the former Postal Job currently pays.  Remember – OWCP is not a retirement system.  As such, while it is a temporary means of being compensated, it will not last forever.  Further, remember that an individual under FERS or CSRS may concurrently file for OWCP benefits and get a Federal Disability Retirement approved, and continue to remain on OWCP until such time that one’s OWCP benefits are cut off or otherwise terminated.  If you already have the FERS or CSRS disability retirement benefits approved, you can “activate” such benefits once your OWCP benefits are terminated.  This is an important point to consider, because it can often take 6 – 8 months, or more, to get a Federal Disability Retirement application under FERS or CSRS approved.

The U.S. Postal Service and Federal Disability Retirement: The National Reassessment Program, the Agency and the Worker

The U.S. Postal Service has, for many years, been a “good employer” for thousands of hard-working Postal employees.  By ascribing the term “good”, of course, one enters into the dangerous territory of different experiences in a wide-range of sectors across the United States, for just as there are “good” and “bad” people, there are good and bad Post Offices, Postmasters, Supervisors, Rural and City Carriers, Maintenance and Electronic Technicians, Clerks, Distribution Clerks, Mail Handlers, etc.  Individuals determine the moral and ethical designation of “good” or “bad”; individuals collectively make up an organization, which is reflective of the type, character and tenor of the individuals within that organization.

Thus, by the conceptual term “good employer”, is merely meant that it has allowed for thousands of hard-working, productive Postal employees to earn a decent wage. “Goodness” of an agency comes about because of good people, and if goodness is in any way determined or defined by the hard work of the majority of the people of any organization, then it is indisputable that the Postal Service, all things considered, is indeed a good agency.

Changes have been in the works.  And they continue to alter the landscape of the U.S. Postal Service.

For many years, when an on-the-job injury occurred, and an OWCP claim was filed, despite the onerous provisions of the Federal Employees Compensation Act (FECA), it allowed for temporary compensation benefits, including wage-loss benefits for total or partial disability, monetary benefits for permanent loss of use of a schedule member, medical benefits, as well as vocational rehabilitation. Yes, FECA is a hassle.  Remember, however, that FECA was never created as a “Retirement System” – but rather, as a means to temporarily compensate the injured worker while attempting to provide for rehabilitation resulting in an eventual return to work.   To that end, even when the injured employee never fully recovered, the Postal Service, in cooperation with OWCP, would attempt to offer various “light duty” or “modified duty” assignments, so that the Postal employee could be retained in a productive capacity.

There is actually nothing wrong with the U.S. Postal Service offering ‘light duty’ or ‘modified assignments’ over the years.  Now, however, with the onerous sweep of the National Reassessment Program (NRP) which is effectively telling all Postal Workers who are not “fully productive” that there are no more “light duty” assignments remaining; no longer can you remain in a “modified duty” position.  You are sent home with a terse explanation that there is no work for you, and you may file for OWCP benefits.  However, only a fool would believe that OWCP benefits will last forever.

What is the choice?  What alternatives are left?  Because Federal Disability Retirement benefits will often take 6 – 8 months to apply for and get approved, it is a good idea to start the process as early as possible.  You may stay on OWCP for as long as you can, or for the length of time FECA allows you to receive such benefits, but there will be a day, sooner than later, when such benefits will be cut off – either through

“vocational rehabilitation” (Translation:  find you a job, any job, that pays at or near what your Postal job paid, and be able to argue that you are no longer entitled to OWCP benefits), referral to an “Independent Second Opinion Doctor” who may look at you (or perhaps not even look at you) and spend five minutes before declaring that you have no residual symptoms and you should be able to return to full duty (Translation:  no more OWCP benefits, but we all know you can’t go back to carrying mail or performing the heavy lifting, bending, pushing, reaching grasping, etc.).

Would you qualify for Federal Disability Retirement benefits under FERS or CSRS?  Assume the following hypothetical:  X suffers from bilateral carpal tunnel syndrome, or perhaps from chronic back pain, failed back syndrome, or chronic pain throughout one’s musculature; it originated from an OTJ injury, accepted by OWCP, and for a decade X worked in a modified light duty job.  The job is no longer in existence (by the way, the fact that such a job is now “no longer in existence” is precisely what attorneys who specialize in Federal Disability Retirement benefits have been arguing for years – that a ’modified light duty’ does NOT constitute an accommodation under the law, precisely because it was merely a temporary position with an ad hoc set of duties, and nothing more).  Can you qualify for Federal Disability Retirement benefits?

Hint:  Note what the Administrative Judges at the U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board stated in the case of Selby v. OPM, Docket #SF-844E-05-0118-I-1, decided June 9, 2006:  “The fact that he was receiving two hours of workers compensation a day also buttresses his claim that his injuries prevented him from performing many of the critical elements of his position.”  In other words, any granting of receipt of OWCP benefits (in this particular case, it was compensation for 2 hours per day, but the argument can be extended to include any amount of compensation) only reinforces and supports (“buttresses”) the argument by a Postal Worker that he or she could not perform the full panoply of the essential elements of one’s job.  Being able to work the full 8 hours in the full description of one’s craft job, is what is required.  Otherwise, it is likely that you qualify for Federal Disability Retirement benefits under FERS or CSRS.

The National Reassessment Program is merely reflective of a wider economic trend; technological changes have altered the landscape of labor-intensive jobs; automation is the focal emphasis in every agency and department; budgetary considerations result in the “bottom-line” approach to personnel decisions.  Where does it all lead to, and what does it all mean for the Postal Worker?  If you believe that, after 20 years of faithful service, after having shown that you are a “good” employee, that such faithful loyalty will be returned “in kind”, while your naiveté may be commendable, your may be sorely disappointed in the manner in which the Agency will treat you.  If the NRP impacts you, you need to make some pragmatic decisions, and one of them may well be to file for Federal Disability Retirement benefits under FERS or CSRS.

Do you have a medical condition or disability which would qualify?  Often, the question is asked whether or not Psychiatric conditions are more difficult to qualify under the criteria of Federal Disability Retirement.  The spectrum of psychiatric conditions, from Major Depression, Anxiety, panic attacks, Asperger’s Syndrome, Bipolar Disorder, ADHD, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, etc., are all medical conditions which, if they prevent you from performing one or more of the essential elements of your job, would qualify you for a Federal Disability Retirement annuity.  Psychiatric cases are no more difficult these days than “physical” disabilities.

In this day and age, it is unfortunate but true, that there has arisen a contentious relationship – between “the Agency” and “the Postal Worker”.  Both are supposed to constitute a single organic entity, unified in purpose; but where the Agency has initiated a deliberate program to “weed out” those Postal Workers – regardless of the years of faithful service – who, because of an ongoing medical condition, are considered to be less than “fully productive”, then it is time for the Postal Worker, whether the Clerk, the Postmaster, the EAS Supervisor, the Maintenance Technician, the Electronic Technician, the Rural Letter Carrier, the City Letter Carrier, or the multitude of countless other important jobs performed at the U.S. Postal Service – time to tap into a benefit which has always been there, but has often been unused, underused or ignored:  Federal Disability Retirement benefits under FERS or CSRS.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

The U.S. Postal Disability Retirement: OWCP, SSD, NRP, Etc.

Nothing works in a vacuum.  Issues surround medical disabilities, the Postal workforce, Social Security Disability benefits, and Federal Disability Retirement benefits, as well as temporary total disability benefits received from the Department of Labor, Office of Worker’s Compensation Programs — they all intersect in one way or another, and the intersection of all of the issues create a maze of confusion which is often difficult for the Postal worker to successfully maneuver through the multiple landmines, dead-ends and potential traps.

Such intersecting difficulties also arise in what the Postal Service has initiated in the last few years — the “National Reassessment Program” — a euphemism for a massive attempt to get rid of anyone and anyone who is not fully productive.  Under this program, the U.S. Postal Service is essentially getting rid of all light-duty assignments; and, of course, such a program intersects with Federal Worker’s Comp, because many light-duty or “modified duty” employees are under the umbrella of OWCP-offered work assignments and modified positions and duties.  People are sent home with the reason given that there is no longer any “light duty” jobs; they are then instructed or forced into filing for OWCP benefits; whether Worker’s Comp will actually pay for temporary total disability is a big question mark.

Ultimately, I believe that the answer will be found in filing for OPM Federal Disability Retirement benefits. The NRP (National Reassessment Program) is simply a macrocosmic approach of a large agency (the U.S. Postal Service), mirroring a microcosmic approach (the approach of most agencies towards individual Federal or Postal employees who have a medical condition which prevents him or her from performing one or more of the essential elements of one’s job) in dealing with “less than fully productive” Federal or Postal employees.  Then, of course, there is the intersecting issue of filing for Social Security Disability benefits, which you have to do anyway, under FERS — but whether one actually gets it, is another issue.  All of these issues intersect; rarely are these issues isolated; the consequential impact of all of these issues need to be viewed in a macro manner.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

Postal Service’s Actions Can Sometimes Be To Your Advantage

Postal employees, there is nothing inherently wrong with an Agency offering you modified or light duty assignments. If management deems you to be valuable, they may want to modify your position in order to keep you. However, the mere fact that you accept and work at a “modified” position does not mean that you are thereby precluded, down the road, from filing for disability retirement.

In fact, most “light duty” or “modified positions” are not real positions anyway, and so you may have the best of both worlds for many years: be able to work at a light-duty or modified position, and still reserve the right to file for Postal Disability Retirement sometime in the future.

The reason for this is simple: in all likelihood, your SF 50 will not change, and you will still remain in the same, original position. As such, the “light duty” position is simply a “made-up” position which has no impact upon your ability to file for disability retirement later on. This is the whole point of Ancheta v. Office of Personnel Management, 95 M.S.P.R. 343 (2003), 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“. The Board thus suggested that a “modified” job in the Postal Service generally would not constitute a “position” or a “vacant position.”

Analogously, this would be true in Federal, non-postal jobs, when one is offered a “modified” or “light-duty position,” or where a Federal employee is not forced to perform one or more of the essential elements of one’s official position. Further, think about this: if a Postal or Federal employee is periodically offered a “new modified” position once a year, or once every couple of years, such an action by the Agency only reinforces the argument that the position being “offered” is not truly a permanent position. Sometimes, the Agency’s own actions can be used to your advantage when filing for disability retirement.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

OWCP, the Postal Service and the National Reassessment Program

For many years, being on Worker’s Comp when injured while working for the Postal Service, worked fairly well. The Postal Service, in conjunction with, and in coordination, would offer an acceptable “light duty position”, delineating the physical restrictions and medical limitations based upon the treating doctor’s clinical assessment, or in accordance with the OWCP-appointed doctor. The Postal employee would then work in that “modified position”, and so long as the Postal Supervisor or Postmaster was reasonable (which was not and is not always the case), the coordinated efforts between OWCP, the U.S. Postal Service and the Postal employee would result in years of “quiet truce”, with the tug and pull occurring in some of the details of what “intermittent” means, or whether “2 hours of standing” meant two hours continuously, or something else – and multiple other issues to be fought for, against, and somehow resolved.

The rules of the game, however, have radically changed with the aggressive National Reassessment Program, instituted in the last few years in incremental stages, nationwide. Now, people are summarily sent home and told that “no work is available”. Postal Workers are systematically told that the previously-designated modified positions are no longer available — that a worker must be fully able to perform all of the essential elements of his or her job. This last point, of course, is what I have been arguing for many, many years — that the so-called “modified job” was and is not a permanent position, and is therefore not a legal accommodation under the laws governing Federal Disability Retirement for FERS & CSRS employees.  After so many years of having the Post Office and the Office of Personnel Management argue that such a “modified job” is an accommodation, it is good to see that the truth has finally come out.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire