Disability Retirement for Federal Workers: Moving beyond the Stagnant Waters of OWCP

“Is it possible…” is an impossible question to answer.  For, the conceptual distinction between that which is possible, as opposed to probable, is one which reveals the chasm between the world of fantasy and one of reality.  The world of the “possible” is unconstrained and unbounded; the world of probable occurrences may be fenced in by statistical constructs, actual circumstances, and real-world experiences.

While it is possible to stay on OWCP for a long duration, it is also probable that OWCP will cut off one’s benefits at some future, undetermined and unexpected time.  Thus, for the Federal or Postal employee who is on, has been on, or even is contemplating filing for, OWCP/FECA benefits because of a work-related injury, the benefit itself is attractive enough to remain on the rolls of OWCP until such time as (A) the Federal or Postal employee can return back to work, (B) the Federal or Postal Worker is deemed recovered, and the OWCP benefits are cut off, or (C) the Federal or Postal Worker decides to “move on” in life.

The first two choices are essentially out of the arena of “control” of the Federal or Postal employee, for one cannot determine or expedite the recovery period of a medical condition, and further, only the doctor (or its surrogate, the Office of Worker’s Compensation Programs) can determine whether or not the Federal or Postal work is now recovered.  As for the last choice, however, it is the Federal or Postal worker who can make the determination — especially if one has already gotten an approval from the U.S. Office of Personnel Management on one’s Federal Disability Retirement application.

OWCP is not a retirement system; one cannot work at another job while on OWCP; one must sit and do what the OWCP case worker tells you to do.  It is only with Federal Disability Retirement benefits, whether under FERS or CSRS, that one can actually engage in another, alternative vocation or career, and begin to move on in life, and become released from the stagnant waters of a constraining medical condition — or that of OWCP.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

OPM Disability Retirement: OWCP Acceptance & Federal Disability Retirement

Case acceptance by the Department of Labor, Office of Workers’ Compensation Programs (DOL/OWCP) makes it easier for the Agency to make a determination on issues of accommodation, which is one of the elements which must be established in preparing, formulating and filing a Federal Disability Retirement application under FERS or CSRS.  

On the one hand, when a Federal employee has been deemed to be “permanent and stationary”, the issue as to whether or not the Agency can reassign the Federal employee, or accommodate him such that the employee can continue to perform all of the essential elements of his or her job, can be easily established, in conjunction with and through the cooperation of a case manager from OWCP.  But even a modified job does not preclude an employee from filing for, and being eligible for, Federal Disability Retirement benefits under FERS or CSRS, precisely because such a modified or “light duty” job is not a permanent position, but rather an ad hoc set of duties as described in the prevailing case of Bracey v. OPM.

On the other hand, when a Federal or Postal employee has been accepted by OWCP and placed on “temporary total disability” — even if the “temporary” nature of such compensation continues on and on for many years — then it makes it easy for the Agency to simply forget about the employee and not even search to see if accommodating the individual is even possible.  

Thus, being placed on OWCP often makes it a simple administrative matter for the Agency.  No accommodations need to be searched for, and the Agency can move on, leaving the Federal or Postal employee in perpetual limbo.  

Concomitantly, however, for the Federal or Postal employee, the fact that one’s medical condition has been accepted by OWCP/DOL can be used as one element to file for Federal Disability Retirement benefits, to show that being on OWCP has some evidentiary weight that (A) the Agency is unable to accommodate the Federal or Postal worker, and (B) that there is persuasive evidence that another Federal Agency has determined that the Federal or Postal employee is disabled, and (C) that receiving temporary total disability is an indicator that one is unable to perform one or more of the essential elements of one’s job.  

Nevertheless, beyond the proof of acceptance by OWCP, the Federal or Postal employee must still affirmatively prove by a preponderance of the evidence that the medical evidence proves that one is unable to perform one or more of the essential elements of one’s job. Being on OWCP may have some minimal persuasive impact; it is still up to the Federal or Postal employee who is preparing, formulating and filing a Federal Disability Retirement application that he or she is eligible for the benefit.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

OPM Disability Retirement: Plantar Fasciitis, Rotator Cuff, Extremity Injuries, etc.

In preparing, formulating and filing a Federal Disability Retirement application under FERS or CSRS, it is often the case that Federal and Postal workers (and the general population) tend to “pigeonhole” medical conditions, injuries and disabilities.  Certain medical conditions are considered “causally related” to certain types of jobs, and this type of relational categorization is often true in Worker’s Compensation claims, or other benefits sought in other areas of law. 

Thus, Plantar Fasciitis is often closely associated with Postal Workers who must remain on their feet throughout the day; Rotator Cuff injuries are often associated with the repetitive physical use of upper extremities; Shoulder Impingement Syndrome, Cervical, Lumbar & Thoracic pain, degenerative disc disease, etc., are all categorized and pigeonholed into physical types of jobs.  Yet, chronic pain of one’s extremities, joints, musculature, etc. can often severely impact more sedentary types of jobs, precisely because of the high distractability of such chronicity of pain.  Additionally, one often overlooks the excessive amount of repetitive “micro-movements” one engages in while on a computer — of the thousands of dexterous manipulations of the fingers and the concomitant engagement of the shoulder muscles, etc., in the very act of typing on a keyboard. 

Pigeonholing a medical condition to a specific type of job is a dangerous endeavor of dismissing a viable Federal Disability Retirement application under FERS and CSRS.  Careful thought and consideration should be given for each medical condition, especially when attempting to ignore the impediment it is causing in performing the essential elements of one’s job does not make the pain go away.  “Out of sight” does not mean “out of mind”, especially when dealing with pain and the underlying medical condition.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

OPM Disability Retirement: The Three Pockets

In discussing Federal Disability Retirement benefits under FERS or CSRS, it is important to keep in mind the conceptual distinction between the three “pockets” of compensatory programs or resources (and, not to confuse the issue further, but these three pockets are separate and apart from the 3-legs of the retirement stool envisioned under FERS — the FERS Retirement annuity, Social Security, and TSP).

The three primary pockets of compensatory programs include:  CSRS & FERS Disability Retirement (and its companion hybrid, the CSRS-Offset)  — all of which get recalculated at age 62 to regular retirement; SSDI (Social Security Disability which, under FERS, one must file for automatically as part of the process of submitting for FERS Disability Retirement benefits, but under CSRS, one does not need to); and finally, Department of Labor, Office of Worker’s Compensation Program.

The former two have direct interaction, inasmuch as one who falls under FERS Disability Retirement must also file for SSDI, and if both are accepted, there is an offset of benefits between the two (100% offset the first year of benefits, 60% offset every year thereafter until age 62).  The last of the three pockets, OWCP benefits, as I have stated on many occasions, is not a retirement system, but one may file for such benefits concurrently with filing for FERS or CSRS Disability Retirement benefits (but one must elect between OWCP benefits on the one hand, and FERS or CSRS benefits on the other hand), have both approved, but cannot collect both concurrently.  There is an exception — and that has to do with a “scheduled award”.

While keeping these various benefits conceptually distinct can be rather confusing, it is important to understand the distinctions when contemplating filing for Federal Disability Retirement benefits under FERS or CSRS.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire