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.