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.

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 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