OPM Disability Retirement: Technical Application of Terms

Wittgenstein’s contribution to Western Philosophy was twofold:  On the one hand, his insight into the role of language and how much (if not all, according to him) of philosophy’s substantive problems and complexities could be unraveled through the analytical dismantling of linguistic confusions, and secondly, the idea that philosophy as an academic discipline should not be given greater stature than any other — in other words, he believed that philosophy was a waning and anachronistic field which would eventually wither on the vines of history, and properly so.

While the undersigned disagrees with the latter assessment, it is the former contribution concerning “language games” and their import to society, daily living, and even to the technical world of legal jargon, which is of interest and relevance.  Lawyers necessarily have a “language game” of their own.  Within the peculiar universe of legal terms, the technical application of such “legalese” has direct and dire consequences if not understood properly and applied narrowly.

In the world of Federal Disability Retirement law, the term “accommodations” is often and profusely applied by agencies and Human Resources Personnel, but more often than not, in a loose and inappropriate manner.  Agencies bandy about the term, to wit:  “Mr. X. was accommodated by allowing for temporary light duty“; “We provided him with an accommodation by letting him take liberal sick leave and LWOP”; “Ms. Y was accommodated with instructions not to lift over her medical restrictions”; and other such implied applications of the term.

Which of the previously-cited statements constitute a technically correct use of the term “accommodation” within the context of Federal Disability Retirement?

Answer:  None of them.

Language games have inherently peculiar traits and rules of application; within the parameters of Federal Disability Retirement, too often the rules of usage are not complied with.  The consequences of non-compliance, unfortunately, is that Federal and Postal employees actually believe that they are being “accommodated”, when in fact they are not.

Further, believing that one is being accommodated by an agency may lead to the mistaken belief that one is ineligible for Federal Disability Retirement, when in fact one has always been eligible precisely because the agency cannot or has failed to provide a legally viable accommodation.  Look into the proper use of terms, and the technically correct application of terms.

In the end, Wittgenstein was right:  Language games reveal more about the competence of those who play them, than about the lack of precision exhibited by human behavior.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

Disability Retirement for Federal Workers: The Difficulty of Accommodation

For Federal and Postal employees filing for Federal Disability Retirement benefits under FERS or CSRS, the issue of accommodation must be addressed at some point, and one often wonders why a Federal agency is either unwilling or unable to accommodate the medical disabilities of a Federal or Postal employee.  

The line between “unwilling” and “unable” is often a complex one, because Agencies must contend with an obligation to attempt to accommodate the medical disability, but remember that such an attempt and obligation is merely one of “reasonable” accommodation.  This means that an implicit cost-benefits analysis is quickly engaged in, where the effort, likely success, extent of any workplace adjustments, whether in the end the essential and core elements of the job functions can be accomplished even with the reasonable accommodations, etc., can successfully be implemented.

An appearance of attempting to accommodate is often all that is indulged, and so the reality is that the Agency seems more unwilling than unable. Further, the simple fact is that, many medical conditions — e.g., those which are psychiatric in nature, are simply medical conditions which are termed “non-accommodatable“.  For, regardless of what workplace adjustments are made, a Federal or Postal worker suffering from Major Depression, anxiety, panic attacks, delusory thought processes, etc., where symptoms upon one’s focus, concentration, ability to have a reasoned perspective, etc., are all impacted, and therefore is inconsistent with any cognitive-intensive work.  As such, the medical condition becomes “inconsistent” with the particular duties of the job, and therefore it is an unreasonable and unattainable goal to consider any accommodations.  

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

Federal Disability Retirement: Accommodation Revisited

There is nothing inherently wrong with an Agency, or the U.S. Postal Service, from providing light duty, limited duty, or “special assignments” to an injured individual, or a Federal or Postal employee who suffers from a medical condition which prevents or otherwise impedes him or her from performing all of the essential elements of one’s job.  The difficult conceptual framework that many Federal and Postal employees are unable to grasp, is that while the Federal Agency can certainly allow for such light duty assignments, such light duty assignments do not preclude one from continuing to remain eligible for Federal Disability Retirement benefits.  

The reason for the continuing eligibility is that there is a legal distinction between “accommodation” under the law, and “light duty” work.  An accommodation, in order to be a technically legal application of the term, must be some act or provision which the Agency makes, such that the individual is capable of performing all of the essential elements of one’s job.  Thus, being allowed to take a greater amount of sick leave, or take LWOP, or be allowed to perform duties which are peripheral to one’s position description — while all well and good — do not allow the Federal or Postal employee to continue to perform the essential elements of the official position description.  As such, light duty allowances do not constitute an accommodation under the law, and while it continues to allow the Federal or Postal employee to remain employed, it also does not preclude him or her from being eligible for Federal Disability Retirement benefits.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

Federal Worker Disability Retirement: Agency Accommodation Reiterated

In most cases, the agency is unable to accommodate the individual.  By “accommodation” is often meant lessening the workload, or temporarily allowing for the medical conditions resulting in certain limitations and restrictions to be taken into account — for purposes of travel, for sustained periods of sitting, for physical aspects of the job, etc.  But such temporary light-duty allowances do not constitute a legally viable “accommodation”.  But one must always remember that, while such measures by the Agency do not constitute an accommodation under the law, and as such do not preclude a Federal or Postal employee from filing for and being eligible for Federal Disability Retirement benefits, nevertheless, there is nothing wrong with the Agency providing for such temporary light duty modifications of the job.  In fact, it reflects well upon the agency that it would go to such extents, even if for only a temporary period of time, in hopes that the Federal or Postal employee will be able to sufficiently recover to return to “full duty”.  

Remember that there are at least two senses of the term “accommodation” — in the layman’s sense of some temporary measures to allow the employee to continue to work; then, in the legal sense of a viable “accommodation” under the law.  Don’t confuse one with the other.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire