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.

National Reassessment Program

       Postal Workers call me daily inquiring about the viability of filing for Federal Disability Retirement benefits under FERS or CSRS. Often, it is in response to the U.S. Postal Service’s initiation of actions resulting from the NRP. The “National Reassessment Program” (which is neither a “program” designed with any rational basis, nor a “reassessment” of anything but an attempt to shed all workers from the rolls of the U.S. Postal Service who are not fully productive and capable; but, alas, at least the term “National” does seem true) is designed to, in a heartlessly methodical manner, do the following:

A. Inform the targeted Postal Worker of the unavailability of work.

B. Force the Postal Worker to begin receiving benefits from FECA (OWCP) .

C. Begin a process of “vocational rehabilitation” – a euphemism for trying to locate a private sector job – any job – that you might qualify for.

D. Get you off of OWCP rolls once you are determined to be “suited” to the private sector job.

      The above applies on the assumption that you have a FECA (OWCP) accepted claim. If you do not have an OWCP-accepted claim, then only “A” above applies to you, and you will essentially be sent home without the “benefit” of “B – D”.

       All sectors – Federal and State Government, and private sector jobs – “downsize” during economically challenging times. In this economy, where job growth is stagnant and budgets are being squeezed more and more each fiscal year, the U.S. Postal Service is attempting to shed its payrolls of all workers who are not “fully productive”. With the latest numbers showing that the first quarter of 2010 left the U.S. Postal Service with a revenue decline of 3.9% resulting in a net loss of $297 million, the onerous steps as envisioned under the National Reassessment Program will only accelerate.

      The NRP is a “controlling” mechanism. The methodology of the program is to make the Postal Worker financially dependent upon OWCP payments and once dependent, to dictate the terms of the “vocational rehabilitation” such that you have no choice in the matter. In comparison to Federal Disability Retirement benefits, it certainly pays more (with a dependent, 75% tax free; without a dependent, 66 2/3% tax free, as opposed to Federal Disability Retirement benefits which pays 60% of the average of one’s highest three consecutive years the first year, then 40% every year thereafter under FERS, all of which is taxable). But the freedom which one gives up by submitting to the NRP Program is precisely what is intolerable.

       Many Postal Workers turn to Federal Disability Retirement benefits in lieu of FECA – or, at the very least, file for and obtain an approval for Federal Disability Retirement benefits as a “back-up” system to FECA. In comparison to the “benefits” under FECA (OWCP), Federal Disability Retirement benefits under FERS (and, similarly, under CSRS, although the percentage of benefits under CSRS remains static) provides the following:

A. It is a retirement system – so that one is actually separated from Federal Service, and further, except for the potential of a Medical Questionnaire every two years (if you are randomly selected), the disability annuitant is not under constant scrutiny

B. An individual Federal Disability Retirement annuitant is allowed to become employed in the private sector and make up to 80% of what one’s former Federal or Postal position currently pays, in addition to the disability annuity

C. An individual under Federal Disability Retirement is not dependent upon the often arbitrary and capricious decision-making process of OWCP. It allows one to decide and determine the future course of one’s life.

       Ultimately, the National Reassessment Program will impact you, the injured Postal Worker, whether today, next week, or a year from now. If self-determination is an important element of your life, then it is wise to take steps today, and to affirmatively make choices soon, before you attempt to go to work one day and are sent home with a letter stating, “There is no work available for you”. Or, you may not even receive the courtesy of a letter.

       The Postal Worker is probably unaware of one additional fact: all these years while the Postal Worker has been in a “Modified” light-duty position, while the U.S. Postal Service “accommodated” the worker by allowing for temporary positions at less than full duty requirements – all these years, that Postal Worker was eligible and entitled to Federal Disability Retirement benefits under FERS or CSRS. You may simply have not known this, but being allowed to work in a “light duty” status, or in a “Modified Position”, was never a legally-sufficient accommodation under the law. (See Bracey v. Office of Personnel Management, 236 F.3d 1356 , Fed. Cir. 2001, as well as my related articles on the subject¹). During these years, the system worked in a crippled way — injured workers were allowed to continue to work, and the economy allowed the U.S. Postal Service to trudge along – albeit at a yearly loss.

       Today, however, choices must be made. The National Reassessment Program is here in your neighborhood, and it is no longer allowing for the old system to continue unabated. If you are contemplating filing for Federal Disability Retirement benefits under FERS or CSRS, now is the right time. To wait is to delay the inevitable; to ignore the inevitable is to allow the circumstances to dictate your future.

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¹ The Bracey Decision and other resources published by attorney Robert R. McGill:

a) Brief legal analysis of non-statutory laws: The Bracey Decision.

b) Blogs that mention Bracey v. Office of Personnel Management:

c) Some articles that also mention Bracey v. Office of Personnel Management:

d) Miscellaneous posts: