OPM Disability Retirement: Psychiatric Conditions and Accommodations

In preparing, formulating and filing a successful Federal Disability Retirement application with the Office of Personnel Management, under FERS or CSRS, the issue of accommodations will come up.  The Agency from which one retires under a Medical Disability Retirement will have to ultimately fill out Standard Form 3112D —  Agency Certification of Reassignment and Accommodation Efforts — which will constitute and satisfy the Agency’s attempts at “accommodating” a Federal or Postal worker in his or her current position, taking into account his or her medical conditions. 

Unfortunately, most medical conditions are deemed to be “non-accommodatable” (if such a term exists in the English Language), and this is logically as well as legally true because with or without the accommodations, one must be able to perform all of the essential elements of one’s positional description.  Minor adjustments to the workplace, or even to the work assignments, may be able to allow for the Federal or Postal worker to continue to work in a Federal or Postal position for some time, but that Federal or Postal worker must be able to perform all of the essential elements of the job, as described in the position description.   An Agency may temporarily suspend certain elements of the core functions of the job, but such temporary suspension does not constitute an accommodation under the law. 

For psychiatric medical conditions, it is rare that an Agency will be able to accommodate such a medical condition, precisely because of the inherent nature of the medical condition — that which impacts upon one’s focus, attention, concentration, and ability to organize and perform executive functions in a coherent and systematic manner.  As such, the issue of accommodation, while one which may have to be addressed in preparing, formulating and filing a Federal Disability Retirement application, is normally an irrelevant, non-issue.

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

CSRS & FERS Disability Retirement: Agencies Rarely Accommodate

For whatever reasons, Federal Agencies rarely accommodate an individual who has a medical condition which impacts one or more of the essential elements of one’s job.  Whether the Supervisor is too busy to craft a viable accommodation plan, or whether the Agency is simply following the standard thoughtless response of the Federal Sector in general, the truth is that Agencies rarely, if ever, provide a truly viable, legally defined accommodation.  I receive calls every day from Federal and Postal employees who will state that the Agency is currently “accommodating” him/her; upon closer questioning, however, it always turns out that the term “accommodation” is being used in a non-artful, general sense, as in:  The Agency is letting me take LWOP; the agency is letting me take sick leave; the agency is letting me not travel too much; the agency is letting me…  What the agency is doing, whatever it is, is to temporarily keep you around until they decide your services are no longer needed.  That may be just around the corner, or you may be forgotten for some considerable amount of time.  Regardless, don’t be fooled; agencies rarely accommodate, and it is most likely the case that whatever “accommodations” the Federal or Postal employee believes that the Agency is providing, it does not fall under the legal definition of the term.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

CSRS & FERS Disability Disability Retirement: OWCP & the Postal Service

For many years, being on Worker’s Comp when injured while working for the Postal Service, worked fairly well. The Postal Service, in conjunction with, and in coordination, would offer an acceptable “modified position”, delineating the physical restrictions and medical limitations based upon the treating doctor’s clinical assessment, or in accordance with the OWCP-appointed doctor. The Postal employee would then work in that “modified position”, and so long as the Postal Supervisor or Postmaster was reasonable (which was not and is not always the case), the coordinated efforts between OWCP, the U.S. Postal Service and the Postal employee would result in years of “quiet truce”, with the tug and pull occurring in some of the details of what “intermittent” means, or whether “2 hours of standing” meant two hours continuously, or something else – and multiple other issues to be fought for, against, and somehow resolved. 

The rules of the game, however, have radically changed with the aggressive National Reassessment Program, instituted in the last few years in incremental stages, nationwide. Now, people are summarily sent home and told that “no work is available”. Postal Workers are systematically told that the previously-designated modified positions are no longer available — that a worker must be fully able to perform all of the essential elements of his or her job. This last point, of course, is what I have been arguing for many, many years — that the so-called “modified job” was and is not a permanent position, and is therefore not a legal accommodation under the laws governing Federal Disability Retirement for FERS & CSRS employees. After so many years of having the Post Office and the Office of Personnel Management argue that such a “modified job” is an accommodation, it is good to see that the truth has finally come out.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

OPM Disability Retirement: Can the Agency Accommodate You?

The term “accommodations” continues to be a highly misused one.  There is the general conceptual application, as when an agency attempts to do something to help a Federal or Postal employee by “allowing” for “light duty”, or allowing one to work at a reduced schedule, or to take sick leave, annual leave, or Leave Without Pay.  But such actions (as kindhearted as they might be intended) do not constitute a legal accommodation under disability retirement rules, statutes, laws or case-law. 

To legally accommodate someone must always mean that the agency does something, provides something, or creates something of a permanent nature, such that it allows you to perform the essential elements of your job.  Temporary measures, or allowing you to take time off, does not allow you to perform the essential elements of your job — instead, it merely allows you take time away from being able to do your job.  Remember, on the other hand, that there is nothing wrong with your Agency doing these things to “help you out”.  It simply does not constitute, or rise to the level of, an “accommodation” under the law.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

OPM Disability Retirement: Accommodations

While I am often asked about the intersecting connection between the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) and Disability Retirement laws under FERS & CSRS, and the issue of accommodations, my short answer is that the two areas of law rarely directly intersect. “Accommodation issues” under disability retirement law rarely present a problem in a practical sense. 

The term itself is rarely applied properly; the best way that I can describe what the term “accommodation” means, in its technical application, is by giving the classic example:  A secretary who suffers from a chronic back condition is unable to perform her secretarial duties because of the high level of distractability from her chronic pain.  The agency purchases an expensive, ergonomic chair, which relieves the chronic pain; she is able to perform the essential elements of her job.  She has thus been “accommodated”. Thus, the definition of “accommodation” is essentially where the Agency does X such that X allows for employee Y to continue to perform the essential elements of Y’s job.  Further, an accommodation cannot be a temporary or modified assignment; in fact, it is not an “assignment” at all — it is something which the Agency does for you such that you can continue to perform your job. 

Thus, as a practical matter, it is rare that an Agency will be able to accommodate an individual. Further, when it comes to psychiatric disabilities, it will be rarer still -especially when the essential elements of one’s job requires the cognitive capabilities which are precisely that which is impacted by the psychiatric medical conditions.  As such, the issue of accommodations is rarely a real issue, and further, people who are attempting to enforce the provisions of the ADA are not those who are truly seeking disability retirement, anyway.  It is the very opposite — they are trying to preserve their jobs, and to force the Agency to provide an “accommodation” under the law.

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