Federal Disability Retirement in the U.S. Postal Service: The Validity of Medical Conditions, whether Physical or Psychiatric

In the year 2014, one would expect that mindsets of anachronistic tendencies would have disappeared.  Social upheaval; changes of customs, values and mores; alterations to traditional notions of what defines X; as each generation believes itself to be the wisest, so we have arrived at this period in modernity where questions of the validity of psychiatric conditions would still be an issue.  That is rather astounding.  Calls are still received where the query reflects a sense of trepidation as to the viability of a psychiatric condition.  This, in the year 2014.

Postal employees, in particular, suffer great stresses in the workplace.  It is simply a fact of life for the modern Postal Worker:  Do more with less; don’t expect a pay raise; consider yourself lucky in this economy to have a job.  But what are the consequences of following such a mandate?  Greater stresses at every tier of being occurs when employed at the U.S. Postal Service.  The real “trickle-down” economic theory has to do with the employment impact of a worker’s environment which finds its paradigmatic impetus in the U.S. Postal Service:  the physical and psychological consequences of an organization (the U.S. Postal Service) which expects more of its workers, while demanding that the same work be accomplished with less help, less pay, and within the constraints of less time, because overtime pay is forbidden.  Stress and the psychological impact upon one’s health, are the conjoining issues which can never be quantified.

As a child, one recalls a representative of the Nuclear energy industry visiting our school and giving a talk, and citing a statistic that not a single individual had died as a result of an industry accident.  At the time, the thought was:  that is a pretty amazing statistical conclusion.  As one grows older, of course, hopefully one increases in wisdom – or, put another way, in cynicism.  Question:  Does the statistical conclusion take into account a cancer-related death occurring decades later, where direct causality between an industry and the medical condition cannot be unequivocally established?  And a similar question for the U.S. Postal Service:  Do the pressures placed upon the Postal Worker, to do more with less, account for a rise is Psychiatric conditions?

It sounds so simple, in theory:  This is a hard economy; competition is more intense than ever; UPS and FedEx are eating away at the competitive edge which the USPS once held; everyone is suffering, so it is only fair to force the U.S. Postal Service to be required of the same:  Do more with less.

But as with all actions, there are consequences which – foreseen or unforeseen – take their toll.  The short answer is that, in filing for Federal Disability Retirement benefits, there is little difference as to the viability of a case between physical medical conditions and psychiatric conditions.  The issue is no longer the conceptual distinction between physical medical conditions and psychiatric conditions; rather, the issue is one of establishing sufficient proof in filing for OPM Disability Retirement benefits.  For, in the end, proving a Federal Disability Retirement case, filed with and reviewed by the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, is not based upon a determination of the seriousness of a medical condition; rather, regardless of the medical condition, the extent of the impact to which the medical condition prevents one from performing one or more of the essential elements of the Postal Job which the Postal Worker must engage.

It is thus the “nexus”, or the linguistic “bridge” established between a medical condition and the type of job which the Postal Worker must work, which is the important body of proof to establish in a Federal Disability Retirement application.  How does one make that connection, or establish that proof?  Since much of Postal work involves strenuous physical activities of a repetitive nature, where physical health and fitness is the primary focus, how does one then wrap the physical aspect around the psychological turmoil?  If you can physically lift up to 70 lbs., bend and twist repetitively; stand and walk throughout the day; it matters not whether you suffer from Bipolar Disorder, Cognitive Dysfunctions, Severe Major Depression, Anxiety, Panic Attacks, suicidal ideations, etc.  Or so one might assume, and therefore doubt that psychiatric conditions form a viable avenue for successfully filing for Federal Disability Retirement benefits, for Postal employees who are under either FERS or CSRS.

The concurrent and parallel roads which converge to precipitate the large volume of cases comprised of psychiatric conditions, by Postal Workers alone, shows the state of working for the U.S. Postal Service.  Yes, Postal Work is engaged in rigorous physical exertions, which often comprise a compendium of medical conditions which are valid bases for filing a Federal Disability Retirement application, including (but not limited to), Rotator Cuff tears; chronic knee pain; lumbar and cervical radiculopathy; Carpal Tunnel Syndrome; Shoulder Impingement Syndrome; Plantar Fasciitis; and multiple other physical conditions.  Paralleling such physical conditions, however, are the stresses from such physical work which often manifest themselves in psychiatric terms, including those psychiatric conditions already mentioned above in the preceding paragraph:  Major Depression; inability to focus or concentrate; Agoraphobia (which would obviously impact City or Rural Carriers); Generalized Anxiety Disorder; uncontrollable panic attacks; and similar psychiatric medical conditions.

How does one create the nexus between (A) a Psychiatric condition which impacts the cognitive capacity of a Postal Worker and (B) the inability to perform what essentially amounts to exertional physical labor?  Quite simply:  The ability to perform physical labor does not merely involve the physical act of labor; rather, it also entails sustained and consistent cognitive focus, concentration, and attention to detail.  The intersecting and inseparable cooperation between the mind and the body in performing physical labor cannot be avoided.  Sometimes, it is the physical medical conditions (e.g., chronic pain; multi-level degenerative disc disease; early onset of arthritis; subacromial bursitis; knee problems; ankle instability; and multiple other conditions) which are primary, with the psychiatric disabilities being secondary (i.e., Major Depression, Anxiety, panic attacks, etc., following upon the constant fight against the chronic pain, and thus deemed to be “second” in sequence with the physical conditions being primary).  The point throughout, however, is that the attempted separation and bifurcation between physical disabilities and psychiatric disabilities, no longer hold any valid basis.

A decade or so ago, the question as to whether psychiatric medical conditions were more difficult to prove in a FERS or CSRS Federal Disability Retirement application, filed with the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, may have deserved a momentary pause for reflection.  In this day and age, the validity of such a question itself must be questioned.  The mind/body distinction which first took root in our culture through the philosophical division created by a French Philosopher named Descartes, has resulted in centuries-old questions as to the bifurcation between the physical and the psychological.  In this day and age, however, the Postal Worker need not fear or have any concerns about the viability of a Federal Disability Retirement application which involves primarily psychiatric-based claims.  Psychiatric medical conditions, including (but not limited to) Major Depression, Anxiety, Panic Attacks, Bipolar Disorder, Schizophrenia, Agoraphobia, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorders, etc., are all valid bases upon which to file for Federal Disability Retirement benefits; as well as all of the physical medical conditions which one may suffer from.

In the end, it is no longer a question of whether the medical condition involves physical or psychiatric medical conditions, when it comes to a valid basis for filing a OPM Federal Disability Retirement application.  Rather, the question is how one formulates one’s case such that proof can be established that the medical condition – whether physical or psychiatric – prevents one from performing one or more of the essential elements of one’s Postal duties.  It is the “how” which is important, and no longer the “whether”.

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

US Postal Disability Retirement: Making the Right Decisions before Ending up At the Merit Systems Protection Board

     Long before a Federal Disability Retirement case reaches the Merit Systems Protection Board, there were multiple decisions, reviews and considerations engaged in – both by the Applicant, as well as by the reviewing Agency, the Office of Personnel Management (OPM).  Why a particular disability retirement case ends up for an Administrative Hearing before an Administrative Judge at the U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB), as opposed to one which gets approved at the Initial Application Stage, or at the Reconsideration Stage, depends upon a number of factors.  Who makes the decisions, considerations, and reviews such decisions at each step of the way, can often make the difference between whether a case gets approved at the OPM stage, or whether a case must go to a Hearing before the MSPB. 

     As an attorney who specializes exclusively in representing Federal and Postal employees to obtain Federal Disability Retirement benefits under FERS (Federal Employees Retirement System) and CSRS (Civil Service Retirement System), I have reviewed and been involved in all aspects of a Federal Disability Retirement application.  From Psychiatric conditions (ranging from Major Depression, Anxiety, panic attacks, Bipolar Disorder, Agoraphobia, etc.) to physical conditions (chronic and intractable Cervical and Lumbar pain, failed back syndrome, degenerative disk disease, plantar fasciitis, bilateral carpal tunnel syndrome, Lyme Disease, Rheumatoid Arthritis, Fibromyalgia, chemical sensitivity issues, Hepatitis, chronic liver and kidney diseases, visual impairment, to just name a few), as well as the combination of both (and, as an aside, many times depression becomes secondary to chronic and intractable pain precisely because of the profound and overwhelming fatigue which occurs on a daily basis), I have been able to obtain Federal disability retirement benefits for almost every medical condition there is.  This is because disability retirement is not so much concerned with a particular diagnosed medical condition, but rather, with the impact that such a medical condition has with one’s Federal or Postal job.

     At each stage in the process – from the initial application stage; if denied, then at the Reconsideration Stage; if denied, then on to an appeal to the Merit Systems Protection Board —  decisions were made as to what to submit, how to respond, and what information to provide in order to satisfy the legal criteria under the reviewing eyes of the “Disability Specialist” at the Office of Personnel Management.  Such decisions are crucial and critical, at each stage of the process, in terms of whether or not a Federal Disability Retirement application will or will not be approved.  Who makes the decision; how the decision is made; what is the right decision to make – these are all important considerations to take a seriously look at, for each stage of the process. 

     When a case ends up at the Merit Systems Protection Board, it is fair to say that somewhere along the line, a decision was made (or perhaps more than one decision) which did not persuade or convince the personnel at OPM to approve the case.  That is why it is important to hire the advice and counsel of an attorney who specializes in Federal Disability Retirement law.  Yes, money and expense is always a consideration.  But how much money and expense is lost if a case is denied, then denied again, and the case ends up at the Merit Systems Protection Board?

     Long before a Federal Disability Retirement case reaches the Merit Systems Protection Board, there were multiple decisions made.  It is important to make the “right” decision before it reaches the MSPB, and an attorney who specializes in Federal Disability Retirement law is helpful to that decision-making process.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire