OPM Disability Retirement: Interaction with Upcoming Postal VER

High pressure sales always need to be met with a pause, a breath, and a moment of reflection.  This is not to attempt to splash any cold water upon the impending Voluntary Early Retirement packets which will be “in the mail” shortly (April 6 – 10, 2009 is the projected date of mailing out VER offer packets to all VER eligible employees).  For some employees, this may be the best and most rewarding route.  My concern is a simple one, with a long history of truth from the great source of all truths:  “If it is too good to be true, then…”   The short window of opportunity within which a decision must be made (all VER eligible employees must decide whether to apply for retirement during the period of April 10 -May 15, 2009; the actual required documents to apply for the VER must be postmarked by May 15, 2009) is short; this is a serious decision, and must be considered carefully.  Some people will decide that the comparison to disability retirement benefits is great enough to consider filing for VER first, obtaining it, then filing for disability retirement benefits within 1 year therafter.  That would be fine, but there are certain steps (creating a “paper trail”) which should be taken if this 1 – 2 – Step is going to be considered.  In any event, the bottom-line consideration must always be:  Is it in the best interest of my future?  Is it the most I can get?  Is it comparable to disability retirement benefits?  Will I think it was the best decision to make 10, 15, 20 years from now (for example, remember that the years in which a person is on disability retirement counts as years in service for recalculation purposes at age 62).  All in all, any decision that has such a small window of consideration must be scrutinized carefully.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

OPM Disability Retirement: The Merit Systems Protection Board

An appeal to the Merit Systems Protection Board in a Federal Disability Retirement case means that the disability retirement application has been denied twice by the Office of Personnel Management:  at the initial application stage, then at the Reconsideration Stage.  This is often considered to be the third and last try — of convincing an administrative judge (an “AJ”) that you are entitled and eligible for disability retirement.  There are, of course, two additional stages — an appeal to the Full Board and to the Federal Circuit Court — but such avenues present only the right to reverse a decision of the Merit Systems Protection Board, and no new evidence can be presented.

Thus, one might consider the Merit Systems Protection Board as the “last stop” in the administrative process.  Do not think, however, that the process must necessarily be won before the Administrative Judge in a hearing — much work and persuasive argumentation should be made to the OPM representative who is handling the case at this MSPB Stage.  The OPM representative at the Third Stage of the process is usually an attorney; they are competent; they are versed in the case-law — and thus open to be persuaded by legal argumentation.  While the administrative stages (the Initial Stage and the Reconsideration Stage) involved OPM representatives who are non-attorneys, the MSPB Stage involves seasoned attorneys who present an opportunity for persuasion and argumentation, and thus a golden opportunity to convince OPM to reverse their own decision before coming to a Hearing.  Such an opportunity should never be missed, and every effort should be made by the applicant’s attorney to have multiple contacts with the OPM representative prior to the date of the Hearing.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

CSRS & FERS Disability Retirement: Further Thoughts on Reasonable Accommodation by the Agency

The problem with Agency efforts to provide an employee with reasonable accommodations is that such attempts are too often than not, neither “reasonable” nor legally viable accommodations.  Let’s remember that a legally viable “accommodation” is that act, allowance, or modification, which allows the employee to continue to perform and complete the core or essential elements of one’s position.  Further, Federal and Postal employees need to understand that there is nothing inherently wrong with an Agency providing an accommodation that is neither legally viable (for Federal disability retirement purposes) nor “reasonable”.

Let me explain.  Let’s say that an employee works for the Postal Service.  He or she gets injured, and let’s even assume that it is a valid OWCP Department of Labor claim.  At some point, because OWCP/DOL is NOT a retirement system, they will often “create” a “modified position” and make a modified, or light-duty job offer.  It could be as extreme as sitting in a corner and answering the telephone.  Now, if the individual gets the same pay, there is nothing inherently wrong with such a modified job offer.  However, at the same time, you need to remember that accepting such a modified job offer does not preclude the employee from filing for, and getting approved, an application for Federal Disability Retirement.  This is because the modified (or “light duty”) job offer is not a real, previously-vacant position, and therefore is neither “reasonable” nor truly an accommodation under federal disability retirement laws.  Nevertheless, there was nothing wrong with the Agency making up such a “modified job” and offering it to the employee.  This is true of all Agencies in the Federal Government, across the Board, from FAA Air Traffic Controllers who have lost their medical clearances, to IT Specialists who have lost their security clearances, to executive level administrators:  modified duties, and “make-up” positions, while remaining in the same position, does not mean that there is anything inherently wrong with the modified job offer.  It just means that such a modified job is neither a “reasonable” accommodation, and nor is it an “accommodation” at all — at least, not under the laws governing Federal Disability Retirement.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

Federal Disability Retirement & the Economy

I have been asked, via multiple emails, of my opinion concerning the right time to file for disability retirement, given the state of the current economy. I am not an economist; I am an attorney who specializes in obtaining disability retirement benefits for Federal and Postal employees under FERS & CSRS. With that prefatory caution, let me state that I am an optimist, and always see the glass as “half full” as opposed to “half empty”.

First, if a Federal or Postal employee can no longer perform the essential elements of one’s job, then it is probably time to file for disability retirement. Second, while disability retirement does not pay a great amount of money, it is a base annuity which allows one to go out and start a “second career”, and make up to 80% of what a person’s former position presently pays, on top of the disability annuity. Further, because disability retirement allows one to retain one’s health insurance benefits, such an individual can be an attractive candidate to a private employer, because of the lack of need to insure the person in the course of his/her the second career. Third, in a tough economy, part-time employment is often more available, and so it is often a good economy for individuals who have a base annuity to rely upon, and who are looking for supplemental income. In any event, one should always look at disability retirement benefits as an opportunity to preserve one’s deteriorating health, and move on to pursue other avenues of opportunities.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

Federal/OPM Disability Retirement: Filing for SSA

I keep getting the same feedback that tells me that people are still receiving erroneous information: SSA disability benefits do NOT have to be applied for first before you file for OPM Disability retirement benefits. In fact, the Office of Personnel Management only needs the receipt showing that a disability retirement annuitant filed for SSA disability benefits at the time of approval. Further, OPM would actually prefer that the SSA denial was based upon reasons other than the fact that the Applicant is still working, because the coordinating off-set between SSA & FERS disability benefits would come into play; however, if an applicant files for SSA benefits & files for disability retirement benefits while still working (and, for most individuals, it is an economic necessity that one continue to work for as long as possible during the process of obtaining disability retirement benefits), then that individual will summarily be denied by the Social Security Administration based not on the medical disability claimed, but rather, upon the fact that the applicant’s current income exceeds the maximum allowed by the Social Security Administration rules governing income and eligibility for benefits based upon income. Thus, for the 50th time: a FERS disability retirement applicant does NOT need to file for SSA disability benefits before filing for OPM disability retirement benefits. At some point in the process, prior to, or at the time of approval by OPM, the individual should file, obtain a receipt of filing, and fax it to OPM.

I hope this clarifies the issue.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire