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.

The Postal Worker and Federal Disability Retirement: Avoiding Temptation and Securing One’s Future

     The world around us imposes a level of complexity which requires the construction of a veil — for some, it is a light grey to partially shade from the brightness of reality; for others, it may be slightly darker.  Such veils are necessary for survival; however, when the mind requires a complete engulfing into fantasy, then it enters into the dangerous state of mental incapacity, and the somnolence of escape has gone too far.

                                                               — From, The Power of Mind and its Relation to the World

     Postal Workers are especially susceptible to the attractive somnolence of benefits received from the Office of Worker’s Compensation Programs, administered through the Department of Labor, under the purview of the Federal Employee’s Compensation Act.  In many ways, OWCP payments provide a false sense of security.  It may last for many years; indeed, one may even be forgotten while on OWCP rolls; and, but for the zero-balance paystubs which the U.S. Postal Service employee continues to receive on a bi-weekly basis, the U.S. Postal Worker maintains a comfortable income —  with dependents, 75% of one’s salary; without, 66 2/3% of one’s salary.  Life can seemingly be good; staying at home, being paid with regularity; until, of course, the inevitable troubles begin. 

     OWCP was never meant to be a retirement system.  While the U.S. Postal Service has been, of recent years, treating OWCP as the dumping ground for Postal Workers, and de facto treating it as a retirement system, the plain fact is that the Department of Labor scrutinizes all Worker’s Comp recipients with the ultimate view towards rehabilitation, and return to some sort of work.  Because of this, those who have been on OWCP but who fail to file for, and secure, Federal Disability Retirement benefits, face the danger of ultimately getting their benefits cut off with no viable alternative recourse.

     The counter to OWCP benefits – or, perhaps more appropriately described, the “complement” to OWCP  — is Federal Disability Retirement benefits from the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, whether the Postal Worker is under the Federal Employee’s Retirement System (FERS) or Civil Service Retirement System (CSRS).  The Postal Worker – and any Federal employee, for that matter, whether Postal or non-Postal —  needs to understand that OWCP is not a retirement system.  Further, whether under the so-called “National Reassessment Program” or some similar nonsense whereby the U.S. Postal Service attempts to hide behind a veneer and semblance of a respectable, thoughtful “program” of becoming more efficient, placing the injured Postal Worker on the rolls of OWCP is another way of stating the obvious:  We don’t want you anymore, and don’t bother trying to come back.

     This unsympathetic approach of the U.S. Postal Service in the past few years has been obvious:  once a Postal Worker becomes injured, the fallback position is to shed its rolls of anyone who is not “fully” productive, by trying to keep them on OWCP.  But the purpose of OWCP was never intended to be used as the dumping grounds for an organization which doesn’t want its injured employees.  Indeed, for decades, the coordinated efforts of all parties involved worked in a unified approach to return the injured Postal Worker to an acceptable level of productivity such that three goals were attained:

1.    First, the injured Postal Worker was compensated during a period of recuperation and rehabilitation, but always with a view that such compensation was temporary, limited, and for a specified period of time.
2.    Second, because of the nature of the jobs at the U.S. Postal Service, requiring the physical ability to engage in highly repetitive functions, with lifting capabilities, of reaching, bending, lifting, standing, walking, etc., throughout the day – that a modification of such physical requirements was necessary in order to “accommodate” any permanent injuries and restrictions resulting from the original injury to the U.S. Postal Worker.
3.    A cohesive and coordinated level of acceptable agreement – not what each party necessarily desires, but at least reaching a level of compromise and cooperation between the three parties involved:  For the Postal Worker, compensation for engaging in the arduous physical requirements of one of the most taxing jobs upon the architectural magnificence of the human body, where one has voluntarily subjected him/herself to the anatomical destruction and lifetime deterioration of one’s entire musculoskeletal integrity; for the Office of Worker’s Compensation Programs, an end to the rehabilitative period, and a return of the worker to the originating agency – the U.S. Postal Service; and for the U.S. Postal Service, the continuing productivity of its worker, albeit at a modified position, with some compromising on the extent and level of the physical requirements in a newly created position.

    But somewhere on the road to Damascus, something changed.  It wasn’t a bolt of lightening, and it wasn’t a sudden revelation from on high.  Rather, it was a unilateral decision that ultimately misdiagnosed the problem:  the inability of the U.S. Postal Service to remain in the financial black – of profitability – was not because of missteps in competing against FedEx or USPS by upper management; it wasn’t because of a top-heavy bureaucracy which over-compensated unproductive upper level managers and wasted funds on needless conferences and junkets; it wasn’t because of the failure of management to recognize the impending impact of email and other electronic forms of communication; no, the problem was determined to be the Postal Worker – the ones who actually did the work.

     The solution, according to the all-wise management of the U.S. Postal Service?  To get rid of all workers on light duty, modified duty, or otherwise all who were not fully productive; dump them onto the rolls of OWCP by declaring that a search of the U.S. Postal Service has resulted in the finding that there is no work available within the restrictions imposed by your medical conditions; and, oh, by the way, while OWCP was never meant to be a retirement system, that is effectively what we are asking of you – to go away.

     Yet, efficiency is a calculus in business which is defined in multifaceted ways, and nothing which the U.S. Postal Service, on the corporate level, has implemented, has proven to be an effective catalyst in promoting its interests.  What the U.S. Postal Service has done is to undermine the essence of the value of business capital, by destroying:

  • Loyalty – for, the manner in which any corporate entity treats its human capital, will be returned with the undying loyalty of its employees
  • A motivated workforce – as the ground level employees of the U.S. Postal Service witnessed the self-immolation of upper management by destroying the fabric of its workforce, the palpable reverberations of loss of energy continues, and will remain for decades hence, to be a problem
  • Fear – while effective for the short term, is never a basis for long-term business planning.  But power through unilateral imposition of decisions from on high, has been the primary tool of upper management in deciding to cut off the loyal workforce of those very Postal Workers who sacrificed their bodies in the course of doing their jobs.

     In such a climate, one must take one’s future into one’s own hands.  Waiting for the U.S. Postal Service to act in the best interests of the Postal Worker is an act of vacuous futility.  Federal Disability Retirement is the option which the U.S. Postal Worker should consider, precisely because it allows for a viable alternative for the future.  Waiting for a corporate entity which has already revealed its underlying motivations – of opting to forego fair treatment to the workers who do the actual day-to-day work which allows for a profitable venture; of deciding that short-term profits are more important than long-term growth of worker loyalty and a motivated workforce; of failing to see the value of the Postal Worker who has subjected himself to the human sacrifice of injury, despair, and a lifetime of debilitated medical conditions; to wait for such an entity to act in the best interests of the Postal Worker would indeed be a foolish endeavor.  Instead, what is necessary is to recognize that the future is now, and the now requires an affirmative step in moving forward beyond the U.S. Postal Service.

     Fortunately, for the U.S. Postal Worker, there is an option – that of preparing, formulating and filing for Federal Disability Retirement from the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, whether under FERS or CSRS.  The deceptive attractiveness of remaining on the rolls of OWCP must be recognized:  OWCP is not a retirement system, and was never intended for such.  For those Postal Workers who are still on the rolls of OWCP, and have not been separated from the rolls of the U.S. Postal Service, filing for Federal Disability Retirement should be considered with the recognition that OWCP will not last forever.  For those who have already been separated from service, one has only 12 months from the date of separation to file for Federal Disability Retirement benefits from the U.S. Office of Personnel Management. 

     Regardless of one’s employment status, today’s Postal Worker must always keep in mind that OWCP should be considered within the context of its intended benefit:  as a temporary compensatory program, and not as a retirement system.  To retire based upon a medical condition, the viable alternative is to file for Federal Disability Retirement benefits from the U.S. Office of Personnel Management.