FERS & CSRS Disability Retirement for the U.S. Postal Service Employee – The Needed Proof

Postal employees often feel that they are second-class citizens – both in terms of their status and stature as a “Federal employee” who is under either the Federal Employees Retirement System (FERS) or (for those lucky ones who are quickly diminishing in numbers but who were able to enter the Federal workforce prior to the 1986 transition) under the Civil Service Retirement System (CSRS); and in terms of pay scales and discussions in Congress related to bloated budgets, inability to become profitable, etc.

For Postal employees who are considering filing for Federal Disability Retirement, either under FERS or CSRS, the question is often queried as to whether the U.S. Office of Personnel Management treats Postal employees differently than non-Postal, Federal employees.   Whether there is any empirical evidence of discriminatory intent on the part of OPM against Postal employees who file for Federal Disability Retirement benefits, is essentially a non-starter.  For, in the end, each case must be decided on the unique quality and extent of the medical documentation compiled.   Further, one cannot compare and contrast differentiated groups lumped by “Postal” as opposed to “non-Postal”, precisely because the uniqueness of each Federal Disability Retirement case is characterized by the medical condition itself; the type of job and positional duties undertaken by individual X who suffers from the medical condition; and the extent, severity and chronicity of the medical conditions in relation to the duties.

With literally hundreds of Federal agencies, and thousands and tens of thousands of differing types of jobs, one cannot aggregate a generic “Postal Worker” and compare it to a compounded composite of “other Federal workers”.  Thus, it is a wrong question to ask.  Instead, the proper question to ask would be:  Given a Postal Worker who is in craft-X, who suffers from medical condition-Y, is there a greater incidence of denials from the U.S. Office of Personnel Management of Postal Workers who file for Federal Disability Retirement benefits, and if there is a greater proportional aggregate of denials as compared to the total number of denials, is there a valid reason for such disproportionate treatment?

In other words, it would be – on its face – incomparably unfair to compare an IT Specialist with the Department of the Navy, who suffers from severe Major Depression and anxiety, to a City Letter Carrier who suffers from status-post cervical discectomy and fusion, precisely because of the type of medical condition involved, and the positional requirements of both.  Further, are there inherent factors within the U.S. Postal Service which can account for any disparate treatment (if we proceed on the assumption that there even exists such differentiation of reviewing and deciding Federal Disability Retirement applications filed by Postal Workers, as opposed to non-Postal, Federal employees)?   The answer is, Yes.

The Postal Service has for years been identified with the notoriety of refusing to accommodate their workers.  Whether in association with OWCP and the Department of Labor, where workers are sent to “second opinion” doctors and “referee” medical facilities in an effort to get people off of the rolls of OWCP and back to full duty; or in conjunction with the National Reassessment Program where an across-the-board infrastructural policy was implemented stating that no accommodations were available for those craft employees who could no longer perform all of the essential functions of one’s job, and that no medical restrictions or limitations would be henceforth honored – a maneuver meant to get rid of all Postal employees who were not fully functional in their jobs – the approach of the U.S. Postal Service in attempting to regain a competitive edge was to try and get rid of anyone and everyone who suffered from a medical condition such that the medical condition prevented the employee from performing all of the essential elements of one’s job.  One might think, upon first considering that approach, that such a maneuver by the U.S. Postal Service would increase the chances for getting a Federal Disability Retirement application approved – for, by conceding that the injured craft employee cannot perform any jobs at the U.S. Postal Service, the assumption would be that such a concession would be evidence for the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, as well as the Federal Disability Retirement applicant, that one is qualified because of the self-admission by the Postal Service, for Federal Disability Retirement benefits.

The problem is twofold:  First, the U.S. Office of Personnel Management is a separate agency from the U.S. Postal Service, and applies a legal criteria which gives scant attention to what the Postal Service thinks, does, or acts upon; and Second, evidence of what the U.S. Postal Service decides – while of somewhat dubious impact and persuasive authority – is ultimately not what makes a Federal Disability Retirement applicant eligible for Federal Disability Retirement benefits.

Indeed, look, for example, beginning with some older precedential cases such as Wilkey-Marzin v. OPM, 82 M.S.P.R. 200 (1999) – where  the Merit Systems Protection Board found that in order to determine a disability retirement in favor of an appellant,  there must be a showing beyond uncorroborated subjective evidence, and provide a “reasoned explanation” of the origins of the disabilities, and how it is disabling with respect to one’s specific duties.  In providing some guiding principles, the Board noted that the Judge should consider the following evidence: (1) objective clinical findings; (2) diagnoses and medical opinions; (3) subjective evidence of pain and disability; (4) evidence relating to the effect of the applicant’s condition on his ability to perform in the grade or class of position last occupied (see also Dunn v. Office of Personnel Management, 60 M.S.P.R. 426, 432 (1994) ).  Note that nowhere in the four (4) guiding principles is there an indication that what the agency does or doesn’t do, should be of primary consideration.  This is not to say that the issue of accommodations will not be relevant; and, certainly, one can argue that an NRP-based decision of refusing any work, or the dreaded “DRAC” (the so-called District Reasonable Accommodation Committee) determination of “no work available”, cannot be effectively used; but the primary focus in a Federal Disability Retirement case, from the viewpoint of the U.S. Postal Worker, should be to prove one’s case based upon the medical documentation, and not rely upon anything which the Postal Services does or doesn’t do.

In the end, if there has been an increase in the number of disability retirement applications, in proportional numbers as compared between “Postal Workers” and any other single Federal Agency of the U.S. Government, it may be because of such unreasonable and uncompromising positions taken under the NRP, the DRAC decisions or in conjunction with OWCP claims.  For, when a determination is made that an agency (in this case, the U.S. Postal Service) will refuse to in good faith attempt to accommodate injured employees, such an intransigent policy will quite obviously increase the numbers of applications to obtain Federal Disability Retirement benefits.  But reliance upon what the agency does, without solid medical evidence to prove, by a preponderance of the evidence, that the Postal Worker is eligible and entitled to Federal Disability Retirement benefits, is to run a fool’s errand.  Postal Workers have had to face multiple obstacles over the years, both in economic downsizing and frozen pay structures; and the decision to shed its workers from within because of medical conditions is merely an indication of the heart and soul of the Postal Service – not necessarily any evidence which would qualify the Postal Worker for Federal Disability Retirement benefits.  For that, one must affirmatively go out and compile one’s case, and use such evidence of the NRP as merely a secondary, peripheral

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.

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 OWCP Danger of Complacency for the Ill or Injured Postal Worker

I have had far too many calls by individuals who were complacent with being on OWCP/DOL temporary total disability compensation. The old adage, “Ignorance of the law is not an excuse”, is still generally true. It is the responsibility of the Postal employee to file for USPS Disability retirement benefits under FERS or CSRS in a timely fashion — within one (1) year of being separated from the Postal Service.  The fact that an individual is on the rolls of Worker’s Comp, receiving Worker’s Comp, receiving a scheduled award, going through rehabilitation or job retraining does not protect or extend the Statute of Limitations of 1 year.  Many people become separated from service without being properly notified.  A hint:  If you all of a sudden stop receiving those “Zero-balance” pay checks, chances are, you have been terminated & separated from service.  The burden is on the Federal employee to keep on top of things:  ask for your PS Form 50, or SF-50, whichever the case may be; call the Post Office or processing center on a regular basis to make sure that you are still on the rolls of the Agency.  If you have been separated from the US Postal Service, a personnel action should have been initiated.  From that moment — when you have been separated from Federal Service — you have one — I emphasize and reiterate — ONE YEAR from the date of separation from the USPS to file for disability retirement benefits.

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