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 and Postal Disability Retirement: Continuing Confusions

In Federal Disability Retirement law under FERS & CSRS, the issue concerning accommodations can continue to remain a rather confusing area of law.  This is especially true when an Agency allows for an individual, either in the Postal Service (which is becoming rarer because of the prevailing winds of the National Reassessment Program) or in the non-Postal, Federal sector, to remain in a position and perform much of the lighter duties of the job, and to allow for one or more of the essential duties of the job to be delegated to others, or not be performed at all.  Now, such a situation can continue on for years, and there is nothing inherently wrong with such an arrangement (aside from the fact that the other Federal workers to whom such work is “delegated” may grumble and complain about fairness or, more likely, that some of the work is never completed), especially if the work which the injured individual performs is valuable to the Agency — even in such a “light duty” status.  

What must be kept in mind, however, regarding the relevance and significance to filing a Federal Disability Retirement application under FERS or CSRS, is that throughout the entire time-period of being on such light duty, the Federal or Postal worker could have, at any time, filed for Federal Disability Retirement benefits and should have been approved.  This is because such temporary “light duty” arrangements never constituted an “accommodation” under the law, and the Federal or Postal worker was eligible for Federal Disability Retirement benefits regardless of remaining in the “light duty” job.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

Federal & Postal Disability Retirement: The Agency & the Individual

The National Reassessment Program (NRP) now implemented in full force, along with the Voluntary Early Retirement, the cash incentives (many have called to ask whether or not, if one is not eligible or offered the early retirement, but the cash incentive with a resignation is still being offered, should you take it?), and the Postal Service’s ultimate goal of shedding its payroll of anyone and everyone who is not “fully productive” by doing away with all “light duty” or “modified duty” slots (there actually is no “slot”, but rather merely an ad hoc set of duties “made up” on a piece of paper, which is what I have been arguing for years and years, and as the Bracey Decision by the Federal Circuit Court addressed) — all of these developments are merely a large-scale, macrocosmic level of what happens every day on an individual, singular basis. 

This is merely a reflection of an Agency, and how it acts, reacts and responds to injured workers, workers who have medical conditions which impact one’s ability to perform one’s job, and worker’s who are not “fully productive”.  It is merely that which happens every day to individual workers, but on a larger scale.  Think about it:  A Federal or Postal employee who develops a medical condition, and cannot perform one or more of the essential elements of one’s job; job performance soon begins to suffer, although perhaps imperceptibly at first; and the question becomes:  How will the agency, via its representative, the “Supervisor”, treat such an employee?  Sadly, more often than not, in a rough-shod, unsympathetic, and often cruel manner.  The Postal Service is simply doing it on a larger scale; but be fully aware, that every day, a Federal or Postal employee who is suffering from a medical condition, encounters such behavior and treatment — only, on a microcosmic, individual scale.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

OPM Disability Retirement: The Process & Time

Time is also part of the entire process of filing for Federal Disability Retirement; time factors involve multiple issues from multiple aspects and perspectives:  The Statute of Limitations of filing a Federal Disability Retirement within one (1) year of being separated from federal service; the fact that the 1-year mark begins from the date of actual separation, not from the date of disability, or the date of one’s inability to perform one’s job (although those dates may, on occasion, coincide); the fact that the medical condition must last for at least 1 year (while, at the same time, recognizing that one normally should not wait for the year to pass before filing for Federal Disability Retirement, because most doctors can provide an opinion, within reasonable medical certainty, that the medical condition impacting one’s inability to perform the essential elements of one’s job will last for at least a year, normally quite early on in the process); the time it takes for the doctor to prepare a proper medical narrative report; the time it takes for the Agency to prepare and attach to the disability retirement packets its required forms; the time it takes for Boyers, PA to process the case and assign a CSA Number to it (which begins with a “4” for CSRS employees, and an “8” for FERS employees); the time it takes to get the case assigned once it is sent down to Washington, D.C.; the time it takes, once assigned, for an Initial Approval or Denial.  And, of course, all the while, during this entire “process” of time, issues as to whether the applicant should, could, or will continue to work, either at the Agency, in some light duty capacity, or in some other job.  These are all “time/process” issues which an attorney can guide and assist a client with, in the complex “process” of filing for Federal Disability Retirement under FERS or CSRS.

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

OPM Disability Retirements: The Remainder of the Year

Thanksgiving is now over. There are barely 4 weeks before Christmas. Yet, for those who are considering filing for disability retirement, time is not the issue; rather, it is whether or not a Federal employee is able to persist in continuing his or her employment before the time of recognition comes. Recognition comes, generally speaking, in three steps: A constant struggle with a medical condition, and the impediment such a medical condition creates, either in being able to come to work consistently, or in being able to perform the essential elements of the job sufficiently. Second, an awareness that weekends and evenings are no longer a time of respite or enjoyment; rather, it is a time to recuperate from the work week. And third, the psychological wall, of not wanting to acknowledge that one has a medical condition such that one can no longer perform at the level that one expects of one’s self. Remember this: disability retirement is a benefit you earned when you worked with loyalty for the many years you have. It does not mean that you cannot be productive in some other employment or capacity; and, certainly, you never want to continue to work such that, upon reaching retirement, you are so debilitated that you cannot enjoy your remaining years of retirement. The year is coming to a close. One’s lifetime of accomplishments, however, extends far beyond the end of a fiscal year.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire