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 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 Initial USPS Disability Process

Many people get confused when they first consult with an attorney about disability retirement benefits for Postal Workers.  Indeed, before consulting with an attorney, an individual who is faced with a medical condition which (1) is beginning to impact one’s ability to perform one or more of the essential elements of one’s position and (2) will likely last at least a year — such an individual should first take the time to research various websites to “get the facts” about USPS Disability Retirement.

I have had many individuals tell me that they didn’t even know that such a benefit existed; that when they were separated from their U.S. Postal Service, the employee was never informed that he or she could file for Federal Disability Retirement.  Unfortunately, ignorance of the law is not a valid excuse; if you don’t file for disability retirement benefits under FERS or CSRS with the Office of Personnel Management within one (1) year of being separated from service with the United States Postal Service, you will have lost your right to file — forever.

Furthermore, it is dangerous to “take comfort” in the fact that the Department of Labor/The Office of Worker’s Compensation Programs deemed you to be 100% disabled.  That “100%” disabled status may last a lifetime, or it may last only so long as your particular OWCP caseworker is working on your case.  The next caseworker may take it upon him or herself and decide that, Well, no, perhaps you are not 100% disabled, and perhaps sending you to a “Second Opinion” doctor (who, it just so happens, is receiving about 95% of his or her income expounding such “second opinions”) will result in a medical finding that you miraculously “recovered” and are able to go back to work.  Benefits cut off.  You waited a year or more after being separated from the Postal Service to find this out, without having filed for Federal Disability Retirement benefits.  You are then, unfortunately, “out of luck”.  Make sure that you file in a timely manner; make sure that you do not take comfort in being on OWCP rolls.  Don’t forget –  Postal or Federal Disability Retirement is an annuity that you can rely upon as a “base income” for your financial security.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire