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.

The Postal Worker and Federal Disability Retirement Today: Longer Hours, More Repetitive Strain, and Less Loyalty from Above

    Animals are by nature suspicious of strangers; it is only the human who, by a smile and a kind word, will embrace a stranger.  And, even if he is stabbed in the back, more often than not, he will attribute the pain to an accidental and excusable act of negligence; and so we are left with a gullible population of saints – or fools, depending upon one’s viewpoint. 

                                    — from, A Human Perspective

U.S. Postal employees have the most difficult of jobs:  the repetitive nature of the craft duties; the constant bending and lifting, placing an extraordinary strain upon the knees, neck and back; turning and twisting; casing of mail; pushing, pulling; performing maintenance; climbing ladders; entering and exiting a vehicle; walking and standing – the full gamut of such strain upon the musculoskeletal, joints and musculature; not even referring to the mental and emotional strains which are placed by time pressures, working cooperatively with coworkers; responding professionally to supervisors, unreasonable postmasters, irrational customers and all throughout, processing and delivering thousands upon tens of thousands of pieces of mail on a daily basis.

Yes, there is the specific compensation program – under the Federal Employees’ Compensation Act (FECA), administered through the Department of Labor (DOL), Office of Workers’ Compensation Programs (OWCP) – which is structured and set up precisely to address the injuries which are incurred as a result of such occupational-related medical conditions, whether directly (as in an injury occurring during the course of one’s day on the job) or as a hazard inherently related to the occupation itself (which should, theoretically, encapsulate such repetitive-type injuries, related to overuse and chronic medical conditions resulting from the combination of time, repetition and duration).   But more often than not, doctors are unable to specifically relate a particular medical condition to one’s occupation – arthritis does not, in all instances and for everyone, necessarily occur in people who engage in arduous repetitive tasks; Patellofemoral Syndrome does not always and in all cases manifest itself for Letter Carriers, Mail Handlers, etc.; and multiple other types of progressively debilitating medical conditions occur in the general population at large – just not in exponentially explosive multiples of occurrences which might lead one to conclude a causally-related factor.  But without the causality factor proven, what is the avenue remaining for a Postal Worker who can no longer perform one or more of the essential elements of his or her job?

The fact is that the Postal Worker today must work longer, harder, and under greater time constraints, supervision and oversight, with constant and incessant harassment from management, coworkers and customers, than anytime in the past.  The pay scale for Postal workers continues to lag behind and deepen, while the overuse and repetitive nature of the work only increases.  While newer mail processing machines are supposed to make way for greater efficiency, the muscles, joints, bones and spinal column of the Postal Worker must endure the identical strains and pressures, except at higher speeds, greater volume, and with added stress.

In a society which has seen the exponential explosion of psychiatric disabilities, including Major Depression, Anxiety, panic attacks, paranoia, schizophrenia, Bipolar disorder, and a myriad of attendant symptomatolgoies, the high pressure, high technology world without conducive interpersonal interaction and coordination between management, mid-level supervisors and the craft employees, only results in the greater devastation of the physical and psychiatric condition of today’s Postal Worker.

Federal Disability Retirement benefits, whether under FERS or CSRS, is a disability annuity which exists for the Postal employee, precisely because the particular job of the Postal Employee is one which is susceptible to a medical condition or disability.   Of course, OWCP/DOL is a compensation program which is there for the Postal employee, also, but the whole point under FECA is to try and return the injured employee back to his or her job.  But in recent years, several factors have interceded to make the Worker’s Compensation benefit an irrelevancy, if not a cruel irony played upon the Postal Worker by the gods of fate:  under the National Reassessment Program (NRP), the U.S. Postal Service no longer wants the rehabilitated Postal Worker to come back, and further, the Department of labor doesn’t want to have to keep paying the injured Postal Worker for injuries which are supposedly preventing the Postal Worker from performing all of the essential elements of his or her job.

The process of filing for, and retaining the benefits of, Federal Worker’s Compensation benefits, is one replete with constant battles with the Department of Labor.   A single refusal to do what OWCP mandates the Postal Worker to do can result in a termination of benefits.  The Postal Worker who is on the OWCP rolls is in a state of perpetual limbo – for, while the benefit itself pays a fairly decent rate (75% for those with dependents; 66 2/3% for those without) and is not taxed, one cannot work at another job while receiving such benefits.   And then there is the danger of prosecution for defrauding the Federal Government – backed by numerous cases in which hundreds of hours of videotaping edited down to a couple of minutes, showing a person performing some kind of physical task which is medically restricted.  When faced with the threat of considerable jail time, a plea bargain involving loss of benefits, forfeiture of future claims, the high cost of hiring a defense attorney, etc., is the normal course of events for the Postal Worker.

This is not only a tough job, but an unsympathetic world.  Federal Disability Retirement benefits from the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, whether under FERS or CSRS, is always an option for the Postal employee.  While the National Reassessment Program continues to send people home by asserting an “unavailability of work based upon a thorough review of the medical condition and the inability of the U.S. Postal Service to accommodate such medical conditions,” the attempt to throw all Postal Workers who are not able to perform 100% of the essential elements of the position onto the OWCP rolls – while it may be an effective way for the U.S. Postal Service to shed its payroll of all injured employees – is not a road to the future for the Craft Employee.

Federal Disability Retirement allows the Postal Worker two great benefits which OWCP will not offer:  A.  Flexibility to engage in another occupation while receiving a disability retirement annuity, and B.  An ability to build for the future.  Yes, OWCP benefits pays more.  Yes, OWCP benefits are non-taxable.  But if the Postal Worker of today is thinking about building a future for tomorrow, the world of limbo, of perpetual fear of someone watching (or videotaping) you; and being fearful of having some second or third opinion doctor suddenly determine that you are perfectly fit to return to full duty, is simply not in the best interests for the long term.

A Federal Disability Retirement annuity will pay 60% of the average of one’s highest three consecutive years of service for the first year, then 40% every year thereafter, until age 62.  During the time that one is receiving a Federal Disability Retirement annuity, the Postal Worker can go out and make up to 80% of what one’s former position currently pays.  Such flexibility is a foundation for a future.  Moreover, it will allow for the needed period of rehabilitative convalescence, while considering alternative options for the future.

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

The Support of the Postal Service to Its Disabled Employees

Sometimes, the question comes up as to whether or not it is important to have the blessing or support of the USPS, when filing for Federal Disability Retirement benefits under FERS or CSRS.

My answer to such a question is fairly uniform and redundant:  this is a medical disability retirement; it is unwise to proceed to apply for Federal Disability Retirement benefits on the assumption that your Supervisor or Management will be supportive, for there is no guarantee as to what “supportive” means (they may have a completely different understanding or definition of the concept than you do — something which you probably learned over many years of working in the US Postal Service), and further, the primary focus from the perspective of the Office of Personnel Management, is upon the medical evidence presented and how the medical condition impacts one or more of the essential elements of your job.

The Supervisor’s Statement should be minimized in importance and relevance, as much as possible, by ensuring that the rest of the disability retirement application is “excellent”.  By doing this, you neutralize any undue dependence upon your supervisor’s alleged “support” of your application.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire