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.

Postal Service’s Actions Can Sometimes Be To Your Advantage

Postal employees, there is nothing inherently wrong with an Agency offering you modified or light duty assignments. If management deems you to be valuable, they may want to modify your position in order to keep you. However, the mere fact that you accept and work at a “modified” position does not mean that you are thereby precluded, down the road, from filing for disability retirement.

In fact, most “light duty” or “modified positions” are not real positions anyway, and so you may have the best of both worlds for many years: be able to work at a light-duty or modified position, and still reserve the right to file for Postal Disability Retirement sometime in the future.

The reason for this is simple: in all likelihood, your SF 50 will not change, and you will still remain in the same, original position. As such, the “light duty” position is simply a “made-up” position which has no impact upon your ability to file for disability retirement later on. This is the whole point of Ancheta v. Office of Personnel Management, 95 M.S.P.R. 343 (2003), 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“. The Board thus suggested that a “modified” job in the Postal Service generally would not constitute a “position” or a “vacant position.”

Analogously, this would be true in Federal, non-postal jobs, when one is offered a “modified” or “light-duty position,” or where a Federal employee is not forced to perform one or more of the essential elements of one’s official position. Further, think about this: if a Postal or Federal employee is periodically offered a “new modified” position once a year, or once every couple of years, such an action by the Agency only reinforces the argument that the position being “offered” is not truly a permanent position. Sometimes, the Agency’s own actions can be used to your advantage when filing for disability retirement.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire