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.

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.

FERS & CSRS Disability Retirement for the U.S. Postal Service Employee – The Needed Proof

Postal employees often feel that they are second-class citizens – both in terms of their status and stature as a “Federal employee” who is under either the Federal Employees Retirement System (FERS) or (for those lucky ones who are quickly diminishing in numbers but who were able to enter the Federal workforce prior to the 1986 transition) under the Civil Service Retirement System (CSRS); and in terms of pay scales and discussions in Congress related to bloated budgets, inability to become profitable, etc.

For Postal employees who are considering filing for Federal Disability Retirement, either under FERS or CSRS, the question is often queried as to whether the U.S. Office of Personnel Management treats Postal employees differently than non-Postal, Federal employees.   Whether there is any empirical evidence of discriminatory intent on the part of OPM against Postal employees who file for Federal Disability Retirement benefits, is essentially a non-starter.  For, in the end, each case must be decided on the unique quality and extent of the medical documentation compiled.   Further, one cannot compare and contrast differentiated groups lumped by “Postal” as opposed to “non-Postal”, precisely because the uniqueness of each Federal Disability Retirement case is characterized by the medical condition itself; the type of job and positional duties undertaken by individual X who suffers from the medical condition; and the extent, severity and chronicity of the medical conditions in relation to the duties.

With literally hundreds of Federal agencies, and thousands and tens of thousands of differing types of jobs, one cannot aggregate a generic “Postal Worker” and compare it to a compounded composite of “other Federal workers”.  Thus, it is a wrong question to ask.  Instead, the proper question to ask would be:  Given a Postal Worker who is in craft-X, who suffers from medical condition-Y, is there a greater incidence of denials from the U.S. Office of Personnel Management of Postal Workers who file for Federal Disability Retirement benefits, and if there is a greater proportional aggregate of denials as compared to the total number of denials, is there a valid reason for such disproportionate treatment?

In other words, it would be – on its face – incomparably unfair to compare an IT Specialist with the Department of the Navy, who suffers from severe Major Depression and anxiety, to a City Letter Carrier who suffers from status-post cervical discectomy and fusion, precisely because of the type of medical condition involved, and the positional requirements of both.  Further, are there inherent factors within the U.S. Postal Service which can account for any disparate treatment (if we proceed on the assumption that there even exists such differentiation of reviewing and deciding Federal Disability Retirement applications filed by Postal Workers, as opposed to non-Postal, Federal employees)?   The answer is, Yes.

The Postal Service has for years been identified with the notoriety of refusing to accommodate their workers.  Whether in association with OWCP and the Department of Labor, where workers are sent to “second opinion” doctors and “referee” medical facilities in an effort to get people off of the rolls of OWCP and back to full duty; or in conjunction with the National Reassessment Program where an across-the-board infrastructural policy was implemented stating that no accommodations were available for those craft employees who could no longer perform all of the essential functions of one’s job, and that no medical restrictions or limitations would be henceforth honored – a maneuver meant to get rid of all Postal employees who were not fully functional in their jobs – the approach of the U.S. Postal Service in attempting to regain a competitive edge was to try and get rid of anyone and everyone who suffered from a medical condition such that the medical condition prevented the employee from performing all of the essential elements of one’s job.  One might think, upon first considering that approach, that such a maneuver by the U.S. Postal Service would increase the chances for getting a Federal Disability Retirement application approved – for, by conceding that the injured craft employee cannot perform any jobs at the U.S. Postal Service, the assumption would be that such a concession would be evidence for the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, as well as the Federal Disability Retirement applicant, that one is qualified because of the self-admission by the Postal Service, for Federal Disability Retirement benefits.

The problem is twofold:  First, the U.S. Office of Personnel Management is a separate agency from the U.S. Postal Service, and applies a legal criteria which gives scant attention to what the Postal Service thinks, does, or acts upon; and Second, evidence of what the U.S. Postal Service decides – while of somewhat dubious impact and persuasive authority – is ultimately not what makes a Federal Disability Retirement applicant eligible for Federal Disability Retirement benefits.

Indeed, look, for example, beginning with some older precedential cases such as Wilkey-Marzin v. OPM, 82 M.S.P.R. 200 (1999) – where  the Merit Systems Protection Board found that in order to determine a disability retirement in favor of an appellant,  there must be a showing beyond uncorroborated subjective evidence, and provide a “reasoned explanation” of the origins of the disabilities, and how it is disabling with respect to one’s specific duties.  In providing some guiding principles, the Board noted that the Judge should consider the following evidence: (1) objective clinical findings; (2) diagnoses and medical opinions; (3) subjective evidence of pain and disability; (4) evidence relating to the effect of the applicant’s condition on his ability to perform in the grade or class of position last occupied (see also Dunn v. Office of Personnel Management, 60 M.S.P.R. 426, 432 (1994) ).  Note that nowhere in the four (4) guiding principles is there an indication that what the agency does or doesn’t do, should be of primary consideration.  This is not to say that the issue of accommodations will not be relevant; and, certainly, one can argue that an NRP-based decision of refusing any work, or the dreaded “DRAC” (the so-called District Reasonable Accommodation Committee) determination of “no work available”, cannot be effectively used; but the primary focus in a Federal Disability Retirement case, from the viewpoint of the U.S. Postal Worker, should be to prove one’s case based upon the medical documentation, and not rely upon anything which the Postal Services does or doesn’t do.

In the end, if there has been an increase in the number of disability retirement applications, in proportional numbers as compared between “Postal Workers” and any other single Federal Agency of the U.S. Government, it may be because of such unreasonable and uncompromising positions taken under the NRP, the DRAC decisions or in conjunction with OWCP claims.  For, when a determination is made that an agency (in this case, the U.S. Postal Service) will refuse to in good faith attempt to accommodate injured employees, such an intransigent policy will quite obviously increase the numbers of applications to obtain Federal Disability Retirement benefits.  But reliance upon what the agency does, without solid medical evidence to prove, by a preponderance of the evidence, that the Postal Worker is eligible and entitled to Federal Disability Retirement benefits, is to run a fool’s errand.  Postal Workers have had to face multiple obstacles over the years, both in economic downsizing and frozen pay structures; and the decision to shed its workers from within because of medical conditions is merely an indication of the heart and soul of the Postal Service – not necessarily any evidence which would qualify the Postal Worker for Federal Disability Retirement benefits.  For that, one must affirmatively go out and compile one’s case, and use such evidence of the NRP as merely a secondary, peripheral

Postal Employees, FERS & CSRS Disability Retirement, the National Reassessment Process, and a Sense of Betrayal

     Is loyalty a man-made convention?  Is it merely the creation of lords and kings to fool the populace into supporting a mirage?  For, cannot loyalty be purchased?  Cannot the powerful grant enough gratuities to garner the loyalty of the guardsmen?  Ah, but will such loyalty last, or will it wait in the quiet of nightfall to see from whom a better price might be paid?  Such loyalty shifts like the sands of summer.  A convention built upon a convention will indeed crumble.  Loyalty must be built upon character, and character upon the integrity and reputation of a man over his entire lifetime.

    — From, Kings and Noblemen

 

     Having spoken to thousands of Postal employees over the past decade, the common thread which runs throughout the conversations concerning preparing and filing a Federal Disability Retirement application under FERS & CSRS, is an undertone of resignation, resentment and realization towards a corporate culture of disloyalty and distrust.  The Postal Worker today is expected to be hyper-efficient, to work and produce more within a restrictively prescribed timeframe, to perform with optimal productivity, and concurrently to maintain a resonance of familiarity, small-town folksiness, and a service-oriented courteousness in communities across the United States. 

     In a competitive economy which has had to weather the advent of faxes, emails, attachments to emails, etc.; where Federal and State bureaucracies have expressed long-range goals to attain a “paperless” system of administrative processing; and where budget cuts and complaints about the public sector wasteland of taxpayer funds has reached a critical mass of citizen revolt; within the context of such economic, financial, technological and bureaucratic turmoil, the U.S. Postal Service has been expected to remain “competitive”.  But “competitive” can be interpreted in different ways.  Unfortunately, in the prevailing corporate culture, it is always gauged and measured in the short term, based upon quarterly financial projections.  What happens 5 or 10 years hence is an irrelevancy; whether the U.S. Postal Service posts a profit or a loss in the next quarter is the quantifying meter of success or failure.

     Management often gives lip service about how they benefit from “listening” to the workers that constitute the backbone of the U.S. Postal Service – the Letter Carriers, Clerks, Maintenance workers, Mechanics, and even some mid-level supervisors.  But listening without resultant actions is merely an attitude of patronizing vacuity.  Listening must be purposive and purposeful; and if the National Reassessment Process is the best that the U.S. Postal Service can come up with as the solution to maintain the corporate competitive edge in this complex, technological universe, then “listening” had absolutely no positive impact upon Management.

     The National Reassessment Process has been a devastating disaster – both for those affected, and upon the viability and survival of the U.S. Postal Service.  America’s binary strength and weakness has always been its ability to move beyond the present crisis, and to adapt quickly to the vicissitudes of economic turmoil.  But the flip side is that corporations, bureaucracies and organizations look to the short term as the metric for success; long-term planning results in a future-oriented view for the survival of the company.  One only needs to, by way of metaphor and analogy, look at how the architecture of churches has evolved over the past 2 centuries.  Once, they were built to last for centuries; now, they are constructed to survive the present lifespan.

     The U.S. Postal Service is on a path of progressive deterioration and self-destruction.  The National Reassessment Process is simply a symptom and indicator of that destruction.  By openly discarding all Postal workers with medical conditions, disabilities and physical limitations, by asserting that there is no identifiable work available for such workers, and to expect all such workers to file for and be placed on the compensation rolls of the Office of Worker’s Compensation Programs, they have accomplished two (2) goals:  First, they have succeeded in disheartening the entire workforce by declaring that loyalty to the organization is no longer a consideration of employment, and Second, that there is no long-term plan for the Postal Service to survive in this economy, and only the short-term, quarterly profitability margins will be relevant. 

     For, ultimately, the long-term viability of an organization is dependent upon the loyalty of its workforce.  Loyalty must be fostered and groomed.  It is, moreover, a tenuous and sensitive element of a business culture – one of those intangible business assets which cannot be quantified by quarterly profit reports, but through the economic indicators of productivity measures, over several years.  By undermining the essence of loyalty – of how an organization treats its employees both during profitable times, as well as through trying economic downturns, and especially how it attempts to meet its employee obligations when a worker gets injured or suffers from a medical condition – the U.S. Postal Service has effectively spelled out its own future.

     Fortunately, all Postal workers fall under the Federal system of FERS (Federal Employees Retirement System) or CSRS (Civil Service Retirement System), which includes Federal Disability Retirement benefits.  While the National Reassessment Process attempts to force all Postal Workers to file for the Department of Labor, Office of Worker’s Compensation Program benefits, the problem with OWCP is that it is not a retirement system, and will not last forever.  As has been stated previously on many occasions, OWCP is a system of compensation intended to rehabilitate the Postal employee for a prescribed, limited amount of time, on a temporary basis, in order to return the Postal Worker back to its formerly productive job.  During the time that a Postal employee is receiving Temporary Total Disability, he or she cannot work at another job, and earn any wages – even if the worker wanted to. 

     Federal Disability Retirement benefits is a viable alternative to OWCP benefits – but an alternative which does not necessarily need to be viewed as a strict dichotomy (i.e., either Worker’s Comp or Federal Disability Retirement benefits), but a benefit which can be seen as a “back-up” system if and when OWCP benefits are terminated.  If a Postal Worker (or any Federal worker, for that matter), suffers from a medical condition which will last a minimum of 12 months, and the medical condition prevents one from performing one or more of the essential elements of one’s job, then it is time to file for Federal Disability Retirement benefits under FERS or CSRS.  For the Postal Worker who is, or will shortly, fall under the National Reassessment Process, the “writing on the wall” is indeed already in print:  The U.S. Postal Service doesn’t have a future for you, and it is time to consider filing for, and obtaining, Federal Disability Retirement benefits under FERS or CSRS.  The future is now – for the Postal Service employee, to think of another career; for the corporate culture of the U.S. Postal Service, to remain in red ink for the foreseeable future.

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 Service and Federal Disability Retirement: The National Reassessment Program, the Agency and the Worker

The U.S. Postal Service has, for many years, been a “good employer” for thousands of hard-working Postal employees.  By ascribing the term “good”, of course, one enters into the dangerous territory of different experiences in a wide-range of sectors across the United States, for just as there are “good” and “bad” people, there are good and bad Post Offices, Postmasters, Supervisors, Rural and City Carriers, Maintenance and Electronic Technicians, Clerks, Distribution Clerks, Mail Handlers, etc.  Individuals determine the moral and ethical designation of “good” or “bad”; individuals collectively make up an organization, which is reflective of the type, character and tenor of the individuals within that organization.

Thus, by the conceptual term “good employer”, is merely meant that it has allowed for thousands of hard-working, productive Postal employees to earn a decent wage. “Goodness” of an agency comes about because of good people, and if goodness is in any way determined or defined by the hard work of the majority of the people of any organization, then it is indisputable that the Postal Service, all things considered, is indeed a good agency.

Changes have been in the works.  And they continue to alter the landscape of the U.S. Postal Service.

For many years, when an on-the-job injury occurred, and an OWCP claim was filed, despite the onerous provisions of the Federal Employees Compensation Act (FECA), it allowed for temporary compensation benefits, including wage-loss benefits for total or partial disability, monetary benefits for permanent loss of use of a schedule member, medical benefits, as well as vocational rehabilitation. Yes, FECA is a hassle.  Remember, however, that FECA was never created as a “Retirement System” – but rather, as a means to temporarily compensate the injured worker while attempting to provide for rehabilitation resulting in an eventual return to work.   To that end, even when the injured employee never fully recovered, the Postal Service, in cooperation with OWCP, would attempt to offer various “light duty” or “modified duty” assignments, so that the Postal employee could be retained in a productive capacity.

There is actually nothing wrong with the U.S. Postal Service offering ‘light duty’ or ‘modified assignments’ over the years.  Now, however, with the onerous sweep of the National Reassessment Program (NRP) which is effectively telling all Postal Workers who are not “fully productive” that there are no more “light duty” assignments remaining; no longer can you remain in a “modified duty” position.  You are sent home with a terse explanation that there is no work for you, and you may file for OWCP benefits.  However, only a fool would believe that OWCP benefits will last forever.

What is the choice?  What alternatives are left?  Because Federal Disability Retirement benefits will often take 6 – 8 months to apply for and get approved, it is a good idea to start the process as early as possible.  You may stay on OWCP for as long as you can, or for the length of time FECA allows you to receive such benefits, but there will be a day, sooner than later, when such benefits will be cut off – either through

“vocational rehabilitation” (Translation:  find you a job, any job, that pays at or near what your Postal job paid, and be able to argue that you are no longer entitled to OWCP benefits), referral to an “Independent Second Opinion Doctor” who may look at you (or perhaps not even look at you) and spend five minutes before declaring that you have no residual symptoms and you should be able to return to full duty (Translation:  no more OWCP benefits, but we all know you can’t go back to carrying mail or performing the heavy lifting, bending, pushing, reaching grasping, etc.).

Would you qualify for Federal Disability Retirement benefits under FERS or CSRS?  Assume the following hypothetical:  X suffers from bilateral carpal tunnel syndrome, or perhaps from chronic back pain, failed back syndrome, or chronic pain throughout one’s musculature; it originated from an OTJ injury, accepted by OWCP, and for a decade X worked in a modified light duty job.  The job is no longer in existence (by the way, the fact that such a job is now “no longer in existence” is precisely what attorneys who specialize in Federal Disability Retirement benefits have been arguing for years – that a ’modified light duty’ does NOT constitute an accommodation under the law, precisely because it was merely a temporary position with an ad hoc set of duties, and nothing more).  Can you qualify for Federal Disability Retirement benefits?

Hint:  Note what the Administrative Judges at the U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board stated in the case of Selby v. OPM, Docket #SF-844E-05-0118-I-1, decided June 9, 2006:  “The fact that he was receiving two hours of workers compensation a day also buttresses his claim that his injuries prevented him from performing many of the critical elements of his position.”  In other words, any granting of receipt of OWCP benefits (in this particular case, it was compensation for 2 hours per day, but the argument can be extended to include any amount of compensation) only reinforces and supports (“buttresses”) the argument by a Postal Worker that he or she could not perform the full panoply of the essential elements of one’s job.  Being able to work the full 8 hours in the full description of one’s craft job, is what is required.  Otherwise, it is likely that you qualify for Federal Disability Retirement benefits under FERS or CSRS.

The National Reassessment Program is merely reflective of a wider economic trend; technological changes have altered the landscape of labor-intensive jobs; automation is the focal emphasis in every agency and department; budgetary considerations result in the “bottom-line” approach to personnel decisions.  Where does it all lead to, and what does it all mean for the Postal Worker?  If you believe that, after 20 years of faithful service, after having shown that you are a “good” employee, that such faithful loyalty will be returned “in kind”, while your naiveté may be commendable, your may be sorely disappointed in the manner in which the Agency will treat you.  If the NRP impacts you, you need to make some pragmatic decisions, and one of them may well be to file for Federal Disability Retirement benefits under FERS or CSRS.

Do you have a medical condition or disability which would qualify?  Often, the question is asked whether or not Psychiatric conditions are more difficult to qualify under the criteria of Federal Disability Retirement.  The spectrum of psychiatric conditions, from Major Depression, Anxiety, panic attacks, Asperger’s Syndrome, Bipolar Disorder, ADHD, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, etc., are all medical conditions which, if they prevent you from performing one or more of the essential elements of your job, would qualify you for a Federal Disability Retirement annuity.  Psychiatric cases are no more difficult these days than “physical” disabilities.

In this day and age, it is unfortunate but true, that there has arisen a contentious relationship – between “the Agency” and “the Postal Worker”.  Both are supposed to constitute a single organic entity, unified in purpose; but where the Agency has initiated a deliberate program to “weed out” those Postal Workers – regardless of the years of faithful service – who, because of an ongoing medical condition, are considered to be less than “fully productive”, then it is time for the Postal Worker, whether the Clerk, the Postmaster, the EAS Supervisor, the Maintenance Technician, the Electronic Technician, the Rural Letter Carrier, the City Letter Carrier, or the multitude of countless other important jobs performed at the U.S. Postal Service – time to tap into a benefit which has always been there, but has often been unused, underused or ignored:  Federal Disability Retirement benefits under FERS or CSRS.

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