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 Federal Workers: Agency Independence

Each agency is tooled with a statutory mandate as to its mission and purpose, and from the origination of the statutory mandate, Federal Regulations and policies are formulated.  The independence of each agency within the Federal Government results in the anomaly of a patchwork of Federal Agencies, few of which are coordinated in their efforts or purposes.  

Conceptually, this is thought to be a good idea — precisely because by preserving the independence of each agency, it can singularly focus upon the mandated purpose and goal — and better accomplish its “mission”.  But the flip-side to the positive consequences of such conceptual formulation is that there is often an overlap between missions, and where the logical result of one action should almost automatically (logically) result in another, such is not the case because of the wall of separation between agencies, preserving their independence from each other.  

In Federal Disability Retirement issues, one would think that where a stricter standard of eligibility is imposed in one agency (e.g., the Social Security Administration for disability determinations), an approval based upon that stricter standard should automatically result in an approval by the Office of Personnel Management for purposes of evaluating and deciding upon a Federal Disability Retirement application under FERS or CSRS.  

Such is not the case, however.  

Hypothetically, it is possible to conceptualize a case where a Federal or Postal employee is deemed “totally disabled” by a doctor, but still be able to perform all of the essential elements of one’s Federal or Postal job.  Conversely, it is possible to think of a case where an individual is no longer able to perform one or more of the essential elements of one’s job (FERS or CSRS Disability Retirement) and yet not be considered “totally disabled” (SSDI).  The latter, of course, happens all the time; the former continues to occur — although, to actually come up with a true case involves mental gymnastics which exists only in the world of myths and language-games.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

Medical Retirement for Disabled Federal Workers: OWCP & Federal Disability Retirement

Whether or not one remains on Department of Labor, Office of Worker’s Compensation Programs (DOL/OWCP) benefits, of receiving Temporary Total Disability compensation, and for how long, should not be the determining factor as to whether to file for Federal Disability Retirement benefits from the Office of Personnel Management, whether under FERS or CSRS.  

Ultimately, the two systems of benefits and compensation are meant to address two different issues. OWCP is meant to address the issue of a Federal or Postal worker who has been injured on the job, or from an occupational disease, and thus causation is an issue with OWCP compensation and benefits.  Further, OWCP is not meant to be a retirement system — although, in more recent years, the U.S. Postal Service and some other Federal Agencies have started to use it “as if” it is a retirement system for its employees, encouraging the filing for such benefits in order to shed the agency of workers who are not “fully” productive.  

What often happens, however, when a Federal or Postal worker continues to remain on OWCP is that it become a default retirement system.  One can easily become comfortable in receiving the Temporary Total Disability payments, and indeed, because of the high rate of pay and the appearance of greater benefits because no taxes are taken out of the amount paid, one can continue to survive on such payments.  But because it is not a retirement system, the day can suddenly dawn when OWCP finds that the Federal or Postal worker is no longer entitled to such compensation.  For that reason, and sometimes for that reason alone, it is important to secure the benefit of a Federal Disability Retirement annuity.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

Disability Retirement for Federal Government Employees: FERS & SSDI Filing

At some point in the process of filing for Federal Disability Retirement benefits under FERS (CSRS is exempted from this particular aspect), the Federal or Postal employee must file for Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) benefits.  FERS employees are under the Social Security System, and the reason behind the requirement of filing is to see whether or not the Federal or Postal employee will concurrently be eligible for Social Security Disability benefits.  

Most Federal and Postal employees are not eligible for Social Security Disability benefits, because the higher standard of “total disability” does not apply to the Federal or Postal employee who is filing under FERS, which has a lower standard of being unable to, because of a medical condition, perform one or more of the essential elements of one’s job.  

The requirement to file for SSDI under FERS is one which must be satisfied at or prior to the time of an approval by the Office of Personnel Management.  It is not, as many Human Resources Departments of various agencies will erroneously inform you, a precondition to filing for FERS Disability Retirement benefits. The only requirement which must be satisfied is that, at or prior to the time of an approval of a Federal Disability Retirement application issued by the Office of Personnel Management, a receipt showing that one has filed for SSDI benefits must be presented to OPM before OPM will process the approved Federal Disability Retirement benefits under FERS.  This is to ensure that, prior to payments being issued, it has been determined that no offsets with SSDI will be necessary.  

Again, at or time of the approval of a Federal Disability Retirement claim, is the requirement of presenting a receipt showing that a Federal or Postal employee has filed for Social Security Disability benefits.  It is NOT a precondition of filing for Federal Disability Retirement benefits with the Office of Personnel Management.  It does NOT have to be done sequentially — and this is where Agencies misinform Federal and Postal employees.  One does not have to file for, let alone get approved for, Social Security Disability benefits prior to filing for FERS disability retirement.  I don’t know how much clearer I can state this fact.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

OPM Disability Retirement: The Passionate Doctor

The doctor who is most supportive of an OPM Disability Retirement application under FERS or CSRS is often the one who understands the “fine print” of what it means to be “disabled” under FERS or CSRS.  That is precisely why the Standard Form 3112C (Physician’s Statement) is often a harmful form, rather than a helpful form.

There are other reasons why the form should never be signed or submitted, but it is enough that it not only tends to confuse the physician, but also does not properly explain to the treating physician the criteria and the underlying meaning of what is necessary to qualify for OPM Disability Retirement benefits.

Generally speaking, doctors are not very passionate about turning in their patients over to the gristmill of the disabled, thinking that putting a person out to pasture is not only medically unnecessary, but ultimately detrimental to the psychological and physical well-being of a patient.

But when it is properly explained to the doctor, in easy and understandable terms, what and why the benefit of Federal Disability Retirement under FERS and CSRS exists, and to inform the doctor of the benefit to the patient, then it is quite possible to have not only the technical support of the doctor, but more importantly, to garner the passionate support of the doctor as well.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

CSRS & FERS Disability Retirement: Agency Interaction

Federal Agencies often act like little fiefdoms.  This is not necessarily a negative thing; each agency is an independent entity, and each has a province of responsibilities which it must carry out and execute according to the statutory mandate provided by Congress.  As independent entities, each agency acts without coordination or regard to other agencies. 

Thus, while approval for disability benefits from the Social Security Administration will mean an offset of monetary payments under FERS, such interaction between the two agencies simply goes to the financial payments — not to the substantive issues of approval or disapproval of a disability retirement claim.  Similarly, while receipt of temporary total disability payments from the Office of Worker’s Compensation Programs means that you cannot concurrently receive payments under CSRS or FERS disability retirement (unless you are receiving a scheduled award from OWCP/DOL), the substantive basis of approval or denial of a claim rarely overlaps.  This is because each agency has its own independent criteria for eligibility — meaning that, for Social Security, the “disability” has a higher standard of “total disability”, whereas under FERS & CSRS, it is a lower standard of “inability to perform one or more of the essential elements of one’s job”.  Similarly, with OWCP/DOL, the issue of “causality” and whether it is “work-related” is often the important component of consideration. 

All of this is not to say, however, that an approval of a disability benefit from one agency,or a report from a doctor considered for one benefit, should not be used by the applicant for submission to another agency.  Indeed, this should be done — but carefully, and with thoughtfulness. 

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire