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

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.

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