OPM Disability Retirement: The Issues That Matter for the Postal Employee

Are there unique aspects in a Federal Disability Retirement application, separate and distinct from non-Postal, Federal employees? Are there essential features, different approaches, and distinguishable paradigms to follow? Are the rules different, applied differently, approached separately, devised insufferably, when determined to involve Postal employees? Are there unique characteristics, either through the preparation delineated from the perspective of the Postal Federal Disability retirement applicant, or from the viewpoint of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, which should be recognized before making that leap into the wide and deep chasm of submitting a Federal Disability Retirement application to OPM?

Certainly, many of the appellate decisions handed down by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, as well as by the U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board, involve U.S. Postal employees. But is the fact that a case involving a U.S. Postal employee enough to distinguish it from other Federal, non-Postal cases? Admittedly, decisions handed down by the Federal Courts or the MSPB do not openly acknowledge any conceptual distinction between Postal employees filing for Federal Disability Retirement benefits, from non-Postal, Federal employees in multiple other agencies; and all presume (correctly and accurately) that both Postal and non-Postal Federal employees fall into the same retirement systems (FERS, CSRS or CSRS-Offset), and as such, the identical legal criteria are applied, including:

  • Minimum of 18 months of Federal/Postal accrued service in order to file for Federal Disability Retirement (for CSRS, 5 years, which presumably already has been met)
  • Not separated for more than 1 year
  • Having a medical condition, such that the medical condition prevents the Federal or Postal employee from performing one or more of the essential elements of one’s job
  • Both the Federal and Postal employee cannot be reassigned to a position at the same pay or grade, and further, cannot be accommodated such that the accommodation allows the Federal or Postal employee to perform all of the essential elements of the job.

Put more succinctly, while overt treatment of both Federal and Postal employees may appear identical, are there “issues” which differentiate between the two? Certainly, and again, accurately, the cases which impact Federal employees parallel Postal employees in their direct and residual effects, and vice versa. As all Federal employees and U.S. Postal employees fall under the same retirement systems, as well as concurrently identical disability retirement benefits, the question therefore must involve any indirect consequences for the U.S. Postal worker, as opposed to the overt residuals that portend both for Federal employees and U.S. Postal workers.

Internal mechanisms unique to the Postal employee can have an impact upon how the U.S. Office of Personnel Management views, analyzes and evaluates a Federal Disability Retirement application submitted by a U.S. Postal worker. Thus, for example, the National Reassessment Process (or as some designate the acronym as representing the term, “Program”) impacted all Postal employees throughout the nation, across all crafts, in reviewing all injured Postal employees serving in a limited duty capacity or other “temporary” light duty assignment, in an effort to ultimately “squeeze” the employee, shed the Postal organization of any and all Postal workers in less than “fully productive” capacity, and return them to the OWCP rolls. But temporary “light duty” assignments, or even “limited duty” assignments (whatever the conceptual differences are between the two), were deemed not to prevent a Federal or Postal employee from being eligible for Federal Disability Retirement benefits. The U.S. Office of Personnel Management fought hard against such a ruling, and indeed, in the beginning (at the MSPB level), prevailed in this viewpoint.

Bracey v. Office of Personnel Management, 236 F.3d 1356 (Fed. Cir. 2001), and further extended in Marino v. Office of Personnel Management, 243 F. 3d 1375 (Fed. Cir. 2001), is a landmark case in clarifying what constitutes an “accommodation” as opposed to a temporary measure of convenience – both for the Federal and Postal employee, as well as for the agency and the U.S. Postal Service. Until the nationwide interference by the NRP in “meddling” with a system that was working, the Postal Service was attempting to maintain the delicate balance between the Postal Service’s inherent need to remain productive and efficient on the one hand, and the rights of the Postal worker who had incurred a medical disability (the majority of which were OWCP-accepted, on-the-job injuries) but retained a desire to continue working. In recognizing the two sides of “needs” and “wants”, the Postal Service created temporary, limited and light-duty assignments. When the NRP began sending Postal workers home with summary dismissals accompanied by curt declarations somewhat in the manner of, “Based upon a review of your medical conditions and the availability of work in your craft, we have determined that the U.S. Postal Service is unable to find suitable work for you” – the remaining option for stranded Postal Workers was to file for Federal Disability Retirement.

The legal definition of an accommodation, for purposes of Federal Disability Retirement, is anything that an agency can do for the Federal or Postal employee which enables “him to perform the critical or essential duties of his official position.” (See, e.g., Selby v. OPM, 2006 MSPB 161, decided June 9, 2006). Thus, placing a Federal employee in a temporary position, or a “light duty” job, does not constitute an accommodation under the law, precisely because such an action on the part of the Agency is to merely sidestep or otherwise avoid the primary concern: such a Federal or Postal employee is still unable to perform all of the essential elements of the official position. For a long time, the issue of whether or not “light duty” constituted an accommodation was essentially an irrelevant one. Prior to the NRP, the Postal Service “accommodated” (using the term very loosely) its injured workers, by allowing for limited or light duty. With the advent of the NRP, the game-changing nature of their meddling became clear: Rid and shed, and let OPM determine whether or not the two-edged sword was sharp on both sides: the Postal Service has no work, anymore, but the Postal worker has been working for many years after incurring a medical condition. Would such a Postal worker still qualify for Federal Disability Retirement benefits?

Vestiges of outmoded thought processes still retain their residual effects well beyond the life-cycle of viability. It is said that hair follicles and toenails continue to grow beyond the certainty of death; perhaps it is merely a myth, or a misperception as dehydration occurs and retraction of surrounding skin leaves the impression of growth and extension. OPM has fought their fight, and lost. Postal workers are still being sent home with summary dismissals based upon “unavailability of work,” and left to fend for themselves while receiving zero-balance paystubs for years, sometimes decades. At some point, the Postal Worker realizes that OWCP is not a retirement system, and being sent to a “second-opinion” evaluation may mean the end of temporary-total Worker’s comp payments. Then what? Filing for Federal Disability Retirement is the option to pursue, but perhaps it has been years since a treating doctor has certified that a medical condition even exists. As there is a wide chasm between perception and reality, so we return to the original question: Are there overt “issues” which differentiate between treatment of Federal employees as opposed to Postal workers? It may well be that the issues remain fairly identical, but the circumstances which create the difficulties make for a distinguishing difference.

But then, that has always been the case with Postal employees – that “quasi-Federal worker” who works for the only Constitutionally-recognized agency, but somehow is relegated as the second-class citizen in the complex universe of Federal systems, and left to consider the administrative procedures governing Federal Disability Retirement benefits for both Postal and Federal non-Postal employees. In the end, it is the very uniqueness of how the non-Postal Federal sector views the Postal worker, which mandates a cautious approach to be taken when the Postal employee considers preparing, formulating and filing for Federal Disability Retirement benefits through the U.S. Office of Personnel Management.

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.