Reconsiderations and Other Medical Matters during Your USPS Disability Retirement Process

Postal employees who give their lives at the expense of their bodies, and who must file for Federal Disability Retirement benefits through the U.S. Office of Personnel Management (with a waylay station via the H.R. Shared Service Office in Greensboro, North Carolina), may encounter a First Stage denial of the application, and wonder: Why? The job itself is so self-evidently strenuous; perhaps (the Craft Employee may query with a touch of sarcasm) the OPM “Administrative Specialist” would like to try and sort mail for a day, or walk the 9-plus mile daily route to deliver mail, or to twist, turn, drive and reach like a Rural Carrier must on a daily basis; all with a shoulder gone bad, a back which requires daily ingestion of pain killers, or working with wrist splints which fail to stabilize the necessity of restricting the dexterous use of ligaments bent in directions defying nature; but there, plain as the light of day, is a letter stating that the “medical evidence fails to show that your medical condition prevents you from performing efficient service” for the U.S. Postal Service, despite the fact that they sent you home with an admonition that there are no jobs available within the medical restrictions which your doctors have identified and imposed.

What? And so, in quick succession, the two primary questions of puzzlement, Why and What. For the Postal Worker who has done everything to extend the duration of one’s employment, imposing silence as replacement for pain until the severity of the radiating discomfort and tingling, numbness and limitation of flexion and movement, until the extent and severity could no longer be muffled, it is tantamount to an injustice plastered in disbelief.

The injured or ill Postal Worker must understand and accept the stark conceptual distinction: Pain is not the same in the human body as it is on paper. There is a vast difference, and a chasm of inseparable proportions, between the theoretical and the pragmatic. The history of one’s progressive deterioration can never be adequately conveyed or narratively delineated in an accurate, reflective manner; for, the timeline of debilitation, of the days, months and years, and sometimes decades, of slow and incremental destruction of the human body; or the subtleties of damage to the human psyche where Major Depression, Anxiety, and uncontrollable panic attacks, where once it began as a nagging feeling of tingling and sweat, but today into a paralyzing attack of chest constriction and inability to think, focus or remember; the medical condition that once was a pinprick in youth, has developed into a crisis of the body and mind, and the question when confronted in terms of filing for Federal OPM Disability Retirement benefits is, How does one persuasively convey one’s medical condition into being eligible for Federal Disability Retirement?

That is why, when a denial is issued from the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, puzzlement is quickly followed by a sense of panic. For, the person who has the epistemological privilege of experiencing the progressively deteriorating pain, or loss of mental acuity and cognitive dysfunctions, is not the same person who is represented in the paper presentation of a Postal Service Disability Retirement application submitted to the U.S. Office of Personnel Management. The chasm between the experiential “I” of the Postal Worker who began a career in good health, in full control of his or her physical and cognitive faculties, and over the years sensed the incremental deterioration and loss of both, as opposed to the skeletal identity of the person described in the applicant’s Statement of Disability as delineated on SF 3112A, is the difference between the depth of human complexity and the superficial attempt at capturing a lifetime of accomplishments and the negation of those achievements within the constrained space provided on a government form.

Then follows the ultimate act of futility: attempting to decipher the verbiage as to the reasons for the denial of one’s OPM Disability Retirement application. There are OPM Representatives who provide long and laboriously detailed expositions as to the application of the legal criteria in denying a Federal Disability Retirement application; and others who give short-shrift with de minimis attention. Somehow, the lengthier ones provide a semblance and appearance of conveying greater weight and gravity; the shorter ones leave one scratching one’s head in utter disbelief and puzzlement. In either case, the initial inclination and reaction is for the U.S. Postal Worker to immediately take notes, jot down a thousand rebutting comments and stream-of-consciousness thoughts (sort of like an initial draft of James Joyce’s Ulysses), and finally come to the devastating conclusion that all such attempts are tantamount to firing a shotgun at a flock of geese a hundred yards away: the pellets may rain upon them, but with ineffective power and sparse projection.

In the end, what one must realize when a Federal Disability Retirement application has been rejected by the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, whether one is under FERS, CSRS or CSRS Offset, is that the foundational presentation of persuasion failed in the essential elements of one’s case. The “Reconsideration” phase of a Federal Disability Retirement application is like the purgatory of a complex administrative process, the “Middle Earth” of a Tolkien fantasy. No longer in the land of initial persuasion and primary argumentation; but caught at the precipice of potentially being denied again, which would result in the necessity of filing an appeal to the U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board. One presumes that, when the initial application was filed, that you gave your “best shot” as far as medical documentation goes. What more is needed? What additional medical documentation would suffice to satisfy and effectively rebut the contesting and adversarial remarks of the OPM Denial Letter? When the body of the “discussion” section containing the underlying basis and reasoning for denying one’s USPS Disability Retirement claim consists in merely pointing out the medical evidence already submitted, then stating in bald conclusory form: “Your medical evidence fails to show that you are disabled such that you are eligible for Disability Retirement…” What is it that OPM is claiming? What further is it that they need?

Clarity of reasoning is difficult to arrive at. Templates rarely suffice to address the individual uniqueness of each Federal OPM Disability Retirement case, but templates of reasoning comprise the majority of what an OPM Denial Letter consists. It often reads like a “cut and paste” job from some other denial letter, and indeed, aside from some peripheral references to individuated medical conditions and identifying some doctors from the person’s file, that is precisely what constitutes an OPM Denial Letter.

But be not deceived, nor down in the dumps; it may be that the medical documentation was indeed sufficient; and instead of wasting one’s energy and time in attempting to decipher the content of an OPM Denial Letter, it is often useful to go back and reiterate the basics of a Federal Disability Retirement case. Three primary points, whether at the Initial Stage of an OPM Disability Retirement application, or at the Reconsideration Stage after an initial denial, must and should always be revisited: A. What are the medical conditions and the symptoms? B. How do the medical conditions prevent the Postal employee from performing one or more of the essential elements of one’s job? And C., Could such medical conditions be accommodated such that the Postal employee could continue to perform all of the essential elements of the job?

The beginning point is often the necessary endpoint. What an OPM Denial letter often does, however, is to obfuscate, confuse, and knock off of the proverbial tracks, the necessary proof needed to meet the preponderance of the evidence test. It may not be rocket science, but it is also not a simple matter to prove. Ultimately, to meet the standard of proof in winning a Federal Disability Retirement application from the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, whether at the Initial Stage of the process or just having received an initial Denial from OPM, going “back to the basics” is always the target to pursue, and that means making sure that one’s treating doctor is supportive of the Federal Disability Retirement. All else naturally flows and follows from there.

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 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 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

To Resign or Not To Resign From the US Postal Service

I am often asked whether or not it is okay to resign from the Post Office prior to either (1) filing for disability retirement or (2) receiving a decision from the Office of Personnel Management. A decision to resign from the Agency must be weighed very carefully, for there are multiple factors which must be considered.

I will try and outline a few of the considerations to be weighed:

(1) What advantage is gained by resigning? If it is merely to avoid the hassles of dealing with the Postal Service (the USPS may insist upon updated medical documents every couple of weeks; they may call and harass you every week; you may have an unsympathetic supervisor, etc.), then I normally advise against resigning. There is no advantage to resigning, other than the quietude of being separated from service. As an attorney, I believe that is not enough of a reason.

(2) What is the disadvantage of resigning? There may be many: Any leverage to force the Postal Service to cooperate with a disability retirement application may be lost; if your doctor has not yet written a medical narrative report (and, believe me, for some doctors, that can take months), the doctor will have to be reminded that any statement of employment impact must pre-date the date of resignation; you lose the leverage of that which the Postal Service holds most dear, for no price: your position. For the position you fill, that slot which suddenly becomes vacant once you resign, is that which is most dear, most valuable for the Agency: and to resign is to give it up without having the USPS pay any cost.

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