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.

 

Federal Disability Retirement for the U.S. Postal Service: What it is and Why the Benefit is Necessary

     How well must a man know his neighbor before he sheds a tear?  Does a man possess humanity merely because he walks upright and speaks well?  What is the gauge, the calculus, the determining factor, as to whether human beings have advanced?  Is it the extent of mechanization, how fast we can travel, how beautiful our technology is designed?  If a man fails to shed a tear, is he more advanced because he possesses less of an ability to exhibit his emotions?  When does a man stop representing humanity?  Or, shall we alter the named designation, and perhaps reorder our self-conception of what it means for us to “be human”?

                                                            From, Questions to Ponder in Human Terms

Postal Workers hold a unique position in the workforce.  While the timeless image of the postman walking with a friendly smile may be a fading memory, replaced by community mailboxes situated at the end of the cul-de-sac, curbside mailboxes (and various other methods to distance any intrusion into the antiseptic lives of each neighborhood), the daily contact with the U.S. Postal Service still pervades.  Despite electronic methods of replacement, email, texting, tweeting, and multiple other means of communication, the letter which arrives is still sorted, processed, transported and delivered by people – those who work at the U.S. Postal Service.

The five minutes out of the week, month or year when the average person sees a Postal employee – perhaps the Window Clerk when tax time comes around; perhaps to send something overnight; or to renew a passport – whatever the reason, such limited contact fails to betray the extent and toll of how physical and stressful the U.S. Postal jobs are.  Considering the medical impact upon one’s neck, back, shoulders, knees, wrists, etc., it is important to recognize the type of positional duties that the Postal Clerk, Letter Carrier, Mail Handler, various Motor Vehicle Operators, Heavy Equipment Operators, Expediters, or Mail Processing Clerks, among many other craft employees, must engage in on a daily basis.  The wear and tear upon the physical body; the daily stresses and mental toll resulting from time pressures, shortage of workers, overtime requirements, difficult interpersonal engagement between Supervisors, Managers and Craft employees; customer services communications; and the daily pressures of rigorous work in a fast-paced, competitive environment.  Criticism abounds these days about the Neanderthal status of the U.S. Postal Service, and some of it may be justified.  Yet, whether justified or not, it has nothing to do with the type of physical, emotional and psychological impact that the daily positional duties have upon individual lives.

Or, take the Postmaster of a small postal facility – the one who must fill in for the craft employees, work the customer service window, and perform the daily administrative duties in repetitive, unrelenting fashion on a daily basis, with reduction and attrition of the workforce, without replacement workers to fill in for absences, sick leave, annual leave, etc.  Or the Rural Carrier who must twist and turn one’s upper body, grasping, turning and reaching to place bundles of mail into mail boxes, mile after endless mile.  It is, indeed, a miracle that the human body can withstand such repetitive wearing upon muscular tissue, bone structure, nerve endings, layers of cartilage, etc., and year after year, be able to allow the individual to perform the progressively deteriorating repetitive functions which are required by the Postal Service.  We haven’t even mentioned the constant walking, mile upon mile, of the letter carrier; the walking up and down stairs, steps; of entering and exiting a motor vehicle repeatedly throughout the day.

Federal Disability Retirement benefits are a needed benefit for all Postal employees, precisely because of the unique type of physical, emotional and psychological requirements of the craft, supervisor and managerial positions at the U.S. Postal Service.   The human toll is something which the public, casual, limited and fleeting in its contact with the Postal employee, is unaware of, and unable to comprehend in its magnification of repetitive tasks throughout the course of processing, distributing and delivering of that piece of mail which arrives at the doorstep.

One might pose the query as to why the Federal Employees’ Compensation Act, administered by the Office of Worker’s Compensation Program (OWCP) under the aegis of the Department of Labor, is not sufficient to adequately compensate Postal employees when they are injured on the job.  It may well be.  But the problem is that not every medical condition can be causally proven to be related directly to the human toll resulting from the daily, repetitive, pounding deterioration by the type of Postal work and duties required.  Consider the following hypothetical:  A Mail Handler who is 48 years old and who has been working at his job for 25 years is moving a piece of furniture at the direction of his spouse.  In the course of lifting, he feels a sudden “pull” in his back, and is forced to sit down.  The piece of furniture remains in the middle of the room somewhat askew, evident that a job has been left incomplete.  The MRI reveals a disc protrusion at L5-S1, with multi-level disc degeneration, chronic pain, and radiating pain and numbness extending to his extremities.  The emergency room notes reflect the history of the medical occurrence:  “…while moving heavy furniture…”  But is that truly the causal connection?  Did the 25 years of constant bending, lifting, reaching, pulling, pushing, grasping, etc., have no medical significance, no cumulative effect?  The doctor could not relate the multi-level disc degeneration and chronic pain to his work.  OWCP, in any event, would deny such a claim outright, asserting unequivocally:  “No causal connection could be found between your medical condition and the nature, origin and type of medical injury from which you suffer.”

In real life, the Postal Worker who suffers from the hypothetical as described above, would have no viable alternative means to securing a livelihood.  The U.S. Postal Service, under the present National Reassessment Program, would refuse to accommodate such a Postal Worker, and would send him/her home, stating that, “After a full review, it has been determined by the District Reasonable Accommodation Committee that no suitable work can be found within the limitations imposed by your medical condition, and therefore the U.S. Postal Service is unable to accommodate you.”

Such hypotheticals are not mere imaginary flights of fancy; they in fact occur, and all too frequently.  That is why Federal Disability Retirement is a needed benefit for the U.S. Postal Worker.  Federal Disability Retirement is a benefit, however, which must be proven by a preponderance of the evidence to the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, that the medical condition suffered by the Postal Worker, whether under FERS or CSRS (A) prevents him or her from performing one or more of the essential elements of the job, (B) that the medical condition is expected to last for a minimum of 12 months or more, and (C) that, whether suffered on or off the job, related to the job or not, the Postal Worker has a minimum of 18 months of Federal Service under FERS, and a minimum of 5 years of Federal Service under CSRS.

Federal Disability Retirement benefits pays a Postal Worker 60% of the average of his or her highest-3 consecutive years for the first year of annuity, then 40% every year thereafter, until age 62, at which point the annuity it recalculated based upon the total number of years of service (including the years one is receiving Federal Disability Retirement benefits).  It is, however, a benefit which must be proven, and as such, is not an “entitlement”, but a benefit which must be secured by sufficient medical evidence, adequate knowledge of the governing laws, and a clear nexus between one’s medical condition and the essential elements of one’s job.

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 Postal Treadmill: Taking the option of USPS Disability Retirement

For many years, the U.S. Postal Service has allowed its workers to remain productive by fashioning limited duty, modified positions for injured employees who were unable to perform all of the essential elements of the job.  To a great extent, those prior years of apparent accommodation (“apparent”, because such modified job offers were never legally sufficient accommodations) were analogous to a treadmill:  So long as the speed of the treadmill allowed for the Postal Worker to perform at his or her pace, consistent with the medical restrictions as allowed for in a “Modified Job Offer” or a “Limited Duty Job” as crafted in cooperation between (usually) three parties – the Postal Worker, the U.S. Postal Service, and the Department of Labor, Office of Worker’s Compensation – the injured Postal Worker was able to perform his or her job well, and remain productive.

Times have changed.

With the accelerated initiation and imposition of the National Reassessment Program, the Postal Treadmill has rapidly increased to exponential speeds, to the extent that most Postal Workers who have occupied a “Modified” or “Light Duty” position are asked to get off the working treadmill completely, and go home.  While filing for OWCP benefits is an option, such payments are tenuous and temporary at best, and at worst, will be denied. While Worker’s Compensation benefits pay well, the issue for the Postal Worker sent home because the U.S. Postal Service has found that a “search of its available positions” all of a sudden has resulted in a failure to find “available work” for the injured Postal Worker, is whether or not such a Postal Worker may qualify for Federal Disability Retirement benefits under FERS or CSRS.

The short answer to that question is, “Yes, in all likelihood”.

The Postal Worker needs to understand that, even during the time that he or she was working at a “Modified Job”, or a “Limited Duty”, that same Postal Worker was always qualified and eligible for Federal Disability Retirement under FERS or CSRS.

How could this be?

A person who is working in a “temporary” light duty position was never technically  “reassigned” to a new permanent position.   That same Postal Worker continued to remain in the same official job-slot, as reflected by the PS Form 50.  As such, the “Modified” or “Light Duty” job was always just a fiction.  It was a “made-up” position.  The fact that under the National Reassessment Program, the U.S. Postal Service could all of a sudden do away with all such positions, only proves the point:  There never existed a “Modified” or “Light Duty” position; it was always the same position, but on a separate piece of paper, the three parties involved – the Postal Worker, the Department of Labor/Office of Worker’s Compensation, and the U.S. Postal Service – simply “made up” the fictional position.

There is legal precedent already in place which establishes that a Postal Worker who occupied a modified or light-duty position is nevertheless eligible for Federal Disability Retirement benefits.  It was addressed by the Federal Circuit Court in Bracey v. Office of Personnel Management, 236 F.3d 1356, 1358 (Fed. Cir. 2001) — a case which I have previously discussed on many occasions, but one which is important to go over again.  In the case of Bracey, the Federal Circuit Court outlined the applicable provisions governing disability retirement, saying that “the pertinent OPM regulation elaborates on the statutory definition by providing that an employee is eligible for disability retirement only if (1) the disabling medical condition is expected to continue for at least one year; (2) the condition results in a deficiency in performance, conduct, or attendance, or is incompatible with useful and efficient service or retention in the employee’s position; and (3) the agency is unable to accommodate the disabling condition in the employee’s position or in an existing vacant position.”

It is this last point (Number 3) which is important to ponder and consider.  For, if the Agency is unable to accommodate the Postal Worker, and being placed in a “Modified” or “Light Duty” position does not constitute an “accommodation” (because there never was such a position to begin with), then the Postal Worker would be eligible for Federal Disability Retirement benefits under FERS or CSRS (assuming that all other criteria of eligibility are met).

Let us consider this further.  In Bracey, the Court clearly stated that an employee must be reassigned to a “vacant” position, and not one which was merely “made up”, in order for such reassignment to be an “accommodation”.  The Court went on to say:

“We Agree with Mr. Bracey that OPM’s argument fails, because the term “vacant position” in section 8337 refers to an officially established position that is graded and classified, not to an informal assignment of work that an agency gives to an employee who cannot perform the duties of his official position.  A ‘position’ in the federal employment system is required to be classified and graded in accordance with the duties, responsibilities, and qualification requirements associated with it.”  Id. at p. 1359
Then, the Court went on to state that the term “vacant position” means “something that is definite and already in existence rather than an unclassified set of duties devised to meet the needs of a particular employee who cannot perform the duties of his official position.”  Id. at 1360.

This is precisely what has occurred to the Postal Worker on the treadmill all of these many years – of NOT being reassigned to a new permanent position, but merely working in a temporary, light duty position. Furthermore, for the Postal Worker, the case of Ancheta v. Office of Personnel Management, 95 M.S.P.R. 343,  10, 12-14 (2003) clarifies it even more, where the Board held that a modified job in the Postal Service that does not “comprise the core functions of an existing position” is not a “position” or a “vacant position” for purposes of determining eligibility for disability retirement. The Board noted that a “modified” job in the Postal Service may include “‘subfunctions’ culled from various positions that are tailored to the employee’s specific medical restrictions,” and thus may not constitute “an identifiable position when the employee for whom the assignment was created is not assigned to those duties.” Id.,  14. The Board thus suggested that a “modified” job in the Postal Service generally would not constitute a “position” or a “vacant position.” Id.

Sound familiar?  Sound like the Postal Worker who has been sent home under the National Reassessment Program?  For the Postal Worker who has been occupying a Modified or Light Duty position all of these many years, you may have thought that you were in an “official” position.  If that were the case, then that same Postal Worker would not be able to be sent home today.  The reality is that no such position ever existed.  The Postal Worker was never in an “official” position, other than the position which he or she always occupied:  that position which required you to perform all of the essential elements of a Clerk, a Letter Carrier, a Rural Carrier, a Mail Processing Clerk, a Distribution Clerk, a Mail Handler, an Electronic Technician, a Maintenance worker, a Sales, Service & Distribution Clerk, etc.

But since the Postal Worker on the daily treadmill was never able to perform all of the essential elements of the “official position”, it logically follows that the Postal Worker was always eligible – even throughout the entire time of working in a “Modified” or “Light Duty” position – to file for Federal Disability Retirement under FERS or CSRS.  Thus, for the Postal Worker who has been sent home, or is in danger of being sent home, because of the National Reassessment Program, a viable option to consider is to file for Federal Disability Retirement under FERS or CSRS.  You were always eligible; you just didn’t know it.

National Reassessment Program

       Postal Workers call me daily inquiring about the viability of filing for Federal Disability Retirement benefits under FERS or CSRS. Often, it is in response to the U.S. Postal Service’s initiation of actions resulting from the NRP. The “National Reassessment Program” (which is neither a “program” designed with any rational basis, nor a “reassessment” of anything but an attempt to shed all workers from the rolls of the U.S. Postal Service who are not fully productive and capable; but, alas, at least the term “National” does seem true) is designed to, in a heartlessly methodical manner, do the following:

A. Inform the targeted Postal Worker of the unavailability of work.

B. Force the Postal Worker to begin receiving benefits from FECA (OWCP) .

C. Begin a process of “vocational rehabilitation” – a euphemism for trying to locate a private sector job – any job – that you might qualify for.

D. Get you off of OWCP rolls once you are determined to be “suited” to the private sector job.

      The above applies on the assumption that you have a FECA (OWCP) accepted claim. If you do not have an OWCP-accepted claim, then only “A” above applies to you, and you will essentially be sent home without the “benefit” of “B – D”.

       All sectors – Federal and State Government, and private sector jobs – “downsize” during economically challenging times. In this economy, where job growth is stagnant and budgets are being squeezed more and more each fiscal year, the U.S. Postal Service is attempting to shed its payrolls of all workers who are not “fully productive”. With the latest numbers showing that the first quarter of 2010 left the U.S. Postal Service with a revenue decline of 3.9% resulting in a net loss of $297 million, the onerous steps as envisioned under the National Reassessment Program will only accelerate.

      The NRP is a “controlling” mechanism. The methodology of the program is to make the Postal Worker financially dependent upon OWCP payments and once dependent, to dictate the terms of the “vocational rehabilitation” such that you have no choice in the matter. In comparison to Federal Disability Retirement benefits, it certainly pays more (with a dependent, 75% tax free; without a dependent, 66 2/3% tax free, as opposed to Federal Disability Retirement benefits which pays 60% of the average of one’s highest three consecutive years the first year, then 40% every year thereafter under FERS, all of which is taxable). But the freedom which one gives up by submitting to the NRP Program is precisely what is intolerable.

       Many Postal Workers turn to Federal Disability Retirement benefits in lieu of FECA – or, at the very least, file for and obtain an approval for Federal Disability Retirement benefits as a “back-up” system to FECA. In comparison to the “benefits” under FECA (OWCP), Federal Disability Retirement benefits under FERS (and, similarly, under CSRS, although the percentage of benefits under CSRS remains static) provides the following:

A. It is a retirement system – so that one is actually separated from Federal Service, and further, except for the potential of a Medical Questionnaire every two years (if you are randomly selected), the disability annuitant is not under constant scrutiny

B. An individual Federal Disability Retirement annuitant is allowed to become employed in the private sector and make up to 80% of what one’s former Federal or Postal position currently pays, in addition to the disability annuity

C. An individual under Federal Disability Retirement is not dependent upon the often arbitrary and capricious decision-making process of OWCP. It allows one to decide and determine the future course of one’s life.

       Ultimately, the National Reassessment Program will impact you, the injured Postal Worker, whether today, next week, or a year from now. If self-determination is an important element of your life, then it is wise to take steps today, and to affirmatively make choices soon, before you attempt to go to work one day and are sent home with a letter stating, “There is no work available for you”. Or, you may not even receive the courtesy of a letter.

       The Postal Worker is probably unaware of one additional fact: all these years while the Postal Worker has been in a “Modified” light-duty position, while the U.S. Postal Service “accommodated” the worker by allowing for temporary positions at less than full duty requirements – all these years, that Postal Worker was eligible and entitled to Federal Disability Retirement benefits under FERS or CSRS. You may simply have not known this, but being allowed to work in a “light duty” status, or in a “Modified Position”, was never a legally-sufficient accommodation under the law. (See Bracey v. Office of Personnel Management, 236 F.3d 1356 , Fed. Cir. 2001, as well as my related articles on the subject¹). During these years, the system worked in a crippled way — injured workers were allowed to continue to work, and the economy allowed the U.S. Postal Service to trudge along – albeit at a yearly loss.

       Today, however, choices must be made. The National Reassessment Program is here in your neighborhood, and it is no longer allowing for the old system to continue unabated. If you are contemplating filing for Federal Disability Retirement benefits under FERS or CSRS, now is the right time. To wait is to delay the inevitable; to ignore the inevitable is to allow the circumstances to dictate your future.

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¹ The Bracey Decision and other resources published by attorney Robert R. McGill:

a) Brief legal analysis of non-statutory laws: The Bracey Decision.

b) Blogs that mention Bracey v. Office of Personnel Management:

c) Some articles that also mention Bracey v. Office of Personnel Management:

d) Miscellaneous posts:


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