OPM Disability Retirement: The Reality of Accommodations

Medical conditions test the value of a worker; for, while people may engage in theoretical discussions of “cost-benefits analysis“, where the cost of X is compared and contrasted to the benefit of Y, such that the hypothetical analysis results in a business decision based upon pure economic need — the reality of such an approach rarely gets a true test beyond such dinner table discussions.  But when a Federal or Postal Worker begins to suffer from a medical condition, such that the medical condition visibly impacts one or more of the essential elements of one’s job, then the economic paradigm of a cost-benefits analysis is applied, whether overtly or in a more subtle, inconspicuous manner.

The agency may recognize the need to allow for temporary suspension of certain positional duties — travel may be taken up by some other employee; heavy lifting may need an additional helper; telecommuting may be a viable option.  The cost of such temporary measures is felt in the work left undone; the benefit is accrued by the experience, wisdom, and knowledge of the disabled retained worker.  In rarer occasions, a formal request for an accommodation may be submitted by the Federal or Postal Worker, and an administrative process of attempting to provide a legally viable accommodation may ensue; but that is a rare process, indeed.

The reality of accommodations in the Federal sector is one of practical need versus the trouble such attempts bring; for the Federal or Postal Worker, whether under FERS or CSRS, the true option left is to file for Federal Disability Retirement benefits from the U.S. Office of Personnel Management.  Such an option results from an agency being tested — and loyalties revealed.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

Federal and Postal Medical Retirement: Reassignment Considerations

In considering filing for Federal Disability Retirement benefits from the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, whether under FERS or CSRS, the issue of possible reassignment will arise — normally as a rather secondary and unimportant facet of the process — as an obligatory agency action.

SF 3112D is a form which the agency must complete.  The form essentially affirms that the agency attempted either of 2 things:  tried to “accommodate” the Federal or Postal employee, or tried to find a suitable “reassignment” to another existing, available position.

As to the latter, case-law has made it clear that in order for an offer of reassignment to preclude the Federal or Postal employee from continuing with one’s Federal Disability Retirement application, such light or limited duty offer must be at the same pay or grade of one’s current position (there are some complicating details connected with the enunciated standard, but for present purposes, this general rule will suffice).

Sometimes, the Agency or the U.S. Postal Service will find a lower-paying position, and offer it, and the employee will gladly accept it because it allows for continued employment.  But one must understand that, if down the road, the Federal or Postal employee finds that he or she is unable to perform one or more of the essential elements of that “lower” position, then it is from that “lower” (and often of lesser responsibilities) position that one will be filing for Federal Disability Retirement.

Just some thoughts to ponder; for, as a general rule, the greater the responsibilities of a position, the lesser the standard of meeting the threshold for a Federal Disability Retirement; and, conversely, the lesser the responsibilities of a position, the higher requirement to prove one’s case in a Federal Disability Retirement application.

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

Recurring Issues of Disability Accommodation, Light & Limited Duty, and the Form Filling of the OPM SF 3112D PDF File

The issue of Agency Accommodations — whether or not an agency can truly “accommodate” an individual; what constitutes a legal accommodation as opposed to temporary light-duty arrangements which do not constitute legally viable accommodations under the standards as expressed in Bracey v. OPM and other cases — keeps coming up in the form of questions and concerns.

Let me just state a few thoughts: First, obviously, the best scenario is if the Agency checks off block 4(a) of SF 3112D, acknowledging that the “medical evidence presented to the agency shows that accommodation is not possible due to the severity of the medical condition and the physical requirements of the position.” Second, however, even if the Agency does not check off 4(a), it is not necessarily a problem, or even a valid concern. Agency Human Resources personnel are notoriously ignorant of the current case-law, and often mistake ad-hoc temporary assignments as constituting an “accommodation”, when in fact they represent no such standard or level of acceptability in disability retirement law. Finally, it is always mindful to remember that disability retirement is a medical issue, not one which is determined by non-medical personnel, and that is why it is important to focus first and foremost upon obtaining a legally sufficient medical narrative report.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

FERS & CSRS Disability Retirement: Agency’s Actions Can Sometimes Be To Your Advantage

Postal employees, there is nothing inherently wrong with an Agency offering you modified or light duty assignments. If your Agency deems you to be valuable, they may want to modify your position in order to keep you. However, the mere fact that you accept and work at a “modified” position does not mean that you are thereby precluded, down the road, from filing for disability retirement.

In fact, most “light duty” or “modified positions” are not real positions anyway, and so you may have the best of both worlds for many years: be able to work at a light-duty or modified position, and still reserve the right to file for Postal Disability Retirement sometime in the future.

The reason for this is simple: in all likelihood, your SF 50 will not change, and you will still remain in the same, original position. As such, the “light duty” position is simply a “made-up” position which has no impact upon your ability to file for disability retirement later on. This is the whole point of Ancheta v. Office of Personnel Management, 95 M.S.P.R. 343 (2003), where the Board held that a modified job in the Postal Service that does not “comprise the core functions of an existing position” is not a “position” or a “vacant position” for purposes of determining eligibility for disability retirement. The Board noted that a “modified” job in the Postal Service may include “‘subfunctions’ culled from various positions that are tailored to the employee’s specific medical restrictions,” and thus may not constitute “an identifiable position when the employee for whom the assignment was created is not assigned to those duties“. The Board thus suggested that a “modified” job in the Postal Service generally would not constitute a “position” or a “vacant position.”

Analogously, this would be true in Federal, non-postal jobs, when one is offered a “modified” or “light-duty position,” or where a Federal employee is not forced to perform one or more of the essential elements of one’s official position. Further, think about this: if a Postal or Federal employee is periodically offered a “new modified” position once a year, or once every couple of years, such an action by the Agency only reinforces the argument that the position being “offered” is not truly a permanent position. Sometimes, the Agency’s own actions can be used to your advantage when filing for disability retirement.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire