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

Medical Retirement for Government Employees: The Duration of a Medical Condition

In being eligible for a Federal Disability Retirement annuity from the Office of Personnel Management, one of the basic criteria which must be met for eligibility determination is that a medical condition, its symptomatologies and impact upon one’s ability/inability to perform the essential elements of one’s job, must last for a minimum of 12 months.  

As a practical matter, the medical condition normally lasts for much longer, and is quite often a chronic, progressively deteriorating condition.  If the medical condition is expected to last for a short period of time, then the Federal or Postal employee must seriously consider whether filing for Federal Disability Retirement benefits is “worth it”, inasmuch as it often takes 8 – 10 months to obtain an approval from the Office of Personnel Management for the First Stage of the process.  

As such, for most Federal and Postal employees who are contemplating preparing, formulating and filing a Federal Disability Retirement application under either FERS or CSRS, there is an implicit acknowledgement and understanding the the medical condition itself is one of chronicity, debilitating in nature, and often progressively deteriorating.  

The fact that a medical condition must last for a minimum of 12 months, however, does not mean that a Federal or Postal employee should wait for the 12 months to pass before filing for Federal Disability Retirement benefits.  That would, upon reflection, be a cruel absurdity — to have to wait for 12 months, then to file and wait about 10 months before the Office of Personnel Management makes a decision, and all of this, only at the First Stage of the process. No — the legal standard is that the medical condition must be “expected” to last a minimum of 12 months; meaning, thereby, that a doctor can normally make a reasonable prognosis as to the duration, chronicity and future behavior of the medical condition; and this can normally be accomplished soon after the identification of a particular 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

OPM Disability Retirement: Problems with the OWCP Paradigm

The problem with basing one’s future stability upon an “OWCP Paradigm”, or “model”, are multiple in nature.  To begin with, you cannot work at another job while receiving OWCP temporary total disability payments.  Thus, while you may be an injured worker, and unable to perform the essential elements of your Federal or Postal job, you may nevertheless be able to be productive in some other capacity, and may be capable of starting a business or working in some other field.  This is true if you are on OPM Disability retirement:  You can go out and get another job, and make up to 80% of what your former position currently pays, and continue to receive your disability annuity.  This is a good deal, in my view, because it provides an incentive to go out and become productive, and to plan for the future. 

Furthermore, OWCP/Department of Labor is notorious for cutting off benefits at the first sign that you are anything less than fully cooperative with their dictates.  OWCP may send you to a “second opinion” doctor who finds that you are “completely recovered”, thereby endangering your Worker’s Comp benefits.  Or, in order to save money, they may dictate to you that you must work as a Wal-Mart greeter, and pay you the difference between a menial job (not of your choice) and what they are paying you.  If you refuse, OWCP may simply ascribe what they believe you can earn, and pay you the difference — or not pay you anything.  While OWCP has procedures for appealing decisions, it is a long and arduous road to take.

These are only some of the problems associated with basing one’s future upon a Worker’s Compensation paradigm.  That is not to say that one should not file for and accept OWCP payments — it definitely pays more, and for a temporary period of payments in order for an injured Federal or Postal employee to remain financially solvent in order to recover from one’s work-related injuries, it is a good program.  As a paradigm for planning for one’s future, however, there is much to be desire.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

OPM Disability Retirement: The Client

Waiting for the approval/disapproval, the determination, the decision,etc., when the Federal Disability Retirement packet is sitting on OPM’s desk, is a passive modality of existence.  Up to that point, however, it is often a good idea to be actively involved in the process.

Whether having an Federal Disability Attorney or not, it is good to “flag” interim dates, to keep on top of how long it has been since the initial letters have been sent out to the doctors, to call the doctors and (diplomatically) ask for a reasonable time-frame within which to have the medical narrative reports written; to ask whether or not a fee is required to prepare the narrative report, and if so, how much, and if prepayment will expedite the report.

Then, once it arrives at the Agency H.R. people (or, in the case of the Postal Worker, the H.R. Shared Services Center in Greensboro, North Carolina), it is a good idea to periodically call (about every two weeks) to see what stage in the process your application is at.  Thereafter, once it is forwarded to the finance office, then on to Boyers, PA, it is a matter of waiting for the CSA number to be assigned, and then the long, arduous wait.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire
Federal Disability Lawyer

 

CSRS & FERS Disability: Perennial Issues

Like perennial plants, some issues continue to repeatedly crop up; once planted, they keep showing up in various question-forms.  The one which needs to be addressed, again, is the “1-year” issue:  there are actually two (2) questions which keep resurrecting themselves: A.  Filing a disability retirement application within 1 year of separation from service, and B. A medical condition which must last for a minimum of one year. 

As to the former:  The statute of limitations begins to toll when a person has been officially separated from Federal Service.  This means that the Agency must take you off of the Federal rolls.  If you continue to receive a paycheck, you are likely not separated (unless, of course, it is some form of a severance paycheck); if you receive a paycheck with “0-balances”, you are still not likely separated. If you are injured and you haven’t worked for a year, but you have not received notification that you have been separated from Federal Service, the 1-year mark has likely not begun.  On the other hand, if your SF-50 or PS Form 50 states that you are separated, then you are separated.  At that point, you have one (1) year to file your Federal Disability Retirement application. 

As to the latter (Issue “B” herein):  In most cases, it is a prospective issue.  It doesn’t mean that you must “have been” medically unable to work for a year; it doesn’t mean that you have to wait around for a year, out of work and penniless, for a year; it doesn’t mean that you must be on OWCP or on LWOP or on sick leave for a year — instead, it means that your medical condition must last for at least a year.  In other words, as is the case with most medical conditions, after a couple of months, your doctor should have an opinion — a “prognosis” — of how long your medical condition which impacts your ability to perform the essential elements of your job, will likely last, within reasonable medical certainty.  Indeed, since the Federal Disability Retirement process often takes from 8 – 10 months (from start to finish) to obtain an approval, by the end of the process, the full year will likely have occurred anyway.  In other words, you don’t need to wait around for a year to show that you can’t perform the essential elements of your job; indeed, that would be foolish. 

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire