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.

 

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 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.