OPM Disability Retirement: Interaction with Upcoming Postal VER

High pressure sales always need to be met with a pause, a breath, and a moment of reflection.  This is not to attempt to splash any cold water upon the impending Voluntary Early Retirement packets which will be “in the mail” shortly (April 6 – 10, 2009 is the projected date of mailing out VER offer packets to all VER eligible employees).  For some employees, this may be the best and most rewarding route.  My concern is a simple one, with a long history of truth from the great source of all truths:  “If it is too good to be true, then…”   The short window of opportunity within which a decision must be made (all VER eligible employees must decide whether to apply for retirement during the period of April 10 -May 15, 2009; the actual required documents to apply for the VER must be postmarked by May 15, 2009) is short; this is a serious decision, and must be considered carefully.  Some people will decide that the comparison to disability retirement benefits is great enough to consider filing for VER first, obtaining it, then filing for disability retirement benefits within 1 year therafter.  That would be fine, but there are certain steps (creating a “paper trail”) which should be taken if this 1 – 2 – Step is going to be considered.  In any event, the bottom-line consideration must always be:  Is it in the best interest of my future?  Is it the most I can get?  Is it comparable to disability retirement benefits?  Will I think it was the best decision to make 10, 15, 20 years from now (for example, remember that the years in which a person is on disability retirement counts as years in service for recalculation purposes at age 62).  All in all, any decision that has such a small window of consideration must be scrutinized carefully.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

CSRS & FERS Disability Retirement: OWCP, Light Duty & Federal Disability Retirement

As I stated in my previous blog, OWCP is not a retirement system. Instead, it is meant to return an injured worker back to productivity with his or her agency. This is done through means of providing for medical treatments; paying the Federal employee temporary total disability benefits during the time of treatment and recuperation; then, if the Federal or Postal employee is unable to return to the former position in full capacity, to offer a “modified position” to the employee.  At each step in the process of OWCP/DOL, the onerous and burdensome hand of the process becomes clear — for, if at any time, the employee refuses to follow the mandates given by OWCP, the real threat of having one’s temporary compensation suddenly terminated is always a possibility. 

Thus, in accepting OWCP benefits, there is a clear trade-off:  tax free compensation for the price of being completely governed by OWCP.  Then, when the modified job offer is given, you have no choice but to accept it, in whatever form, and must be accepted “as is” — otherwise, your temporary total disability payments will be terminated.  Remember, however, that accepting such a position does NOT preclude you from filing for disability retirement benefits, because the case-law governing Federal Disability Retirement has a “safety” feature:  in order to be considered a legally viable “accommodation” under the law, the modified job that is offered and accepted must have been one which was previously in existence, and vacant.  It cannot be your old job slot, modified by a piece of paper prepared by your agency and the Department of Labor.  It must be a true job.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

OPM Disability Retirement: OWCP & Federal Disability Retirement

I often tell my clients that OWCP/DOL is not a retirement system. It is a system which was meant to address the medical injury resulting from a work-place accident or occupational hazard resulting in a medical issue arising, such that compensation is allowed for a period of time during a process of recuperation.

As unfortunate as it is, Worker’s Comp has become synonymous with “harassment” and “difficult”, where approval for wage compensation, for medical treatment (including necessary surgery) has meant months and months — and often years — of wrangling and fighting; of having an OWCP case manager or adjuster being rude, failing to respond, failing to return telephone calls, and just when it seems as if something may be done, the OWCP caseworker is switched to someone else who is equally unresponsive.

Then of course there is the intrusiveness — of the OWCP nurse who sits in with you and your doctor, in a context where it is as if the “enemy” is watching that relationship which is supposed to be sacred and private:  a conversation between a doctor and the patient. It is, as I have often told clients, “a hard road to travel.”  Yet, where the medical condition, injury or disability arises as a result of a work-place accident, obviously it is financially beneficial because it pays more. That is the bottom line.  Further, it is tax-free.  But it is not a retirement system. 

Disability retirement pays less; it matters not whether the injury or medical condition occurred “on the job”; you are not required to be examined by a “second opinion doctor”; you do not have to obtain prior approval from a case manager to go and seek medical treatment.  But the benefits are much lower; it is taxable.  However, is it disability retirement.  In such a retirement, you are meant to go out and to do other things in life, including other work.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

OPM Disability Retirement: the Psychological Barrier

I hear the anguish in people’s voices; an individual has worked for the Federal Government, or the Postal Service, for 20+ years; “I’m not lazy”, “I’ve worked all of my life”, “I gave my Agency the best, each day”, “I am not asking for a hand-out.”  No justification is needed.  No defense is needed.  Disability retirement is not welfare; it is not a hand-out; it is a benefit which was part of the employment package which your employer — the Federal Government — offered to you, when you applied for the job.  You could have applied for a private sector job, and received a higher offer of monetary compensation, but with lesser benefits.  A Federal employee who accepts a Federal or Postal position, does so with the understanding that the monetary compensation may be lesser, but the total package of benefits makes it worthwhile.  Some of those benefits are considered as “safety-net” benefits, and disability retirement is one of those.  No justification is needed.  No defense is needed.  You worked hard; you gave it your best; it is time to take that benefit which you earned, and move on to another phase of your career, your life, and your contribution to society –which yet remains in abundance.  Your best days are yet to come.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

OPM Disability Retirement: Agency Loyalty

Many people who call me and tell me their narrative about the Agency, the medical conditions, the growing inability to perform the essential elements of the job, and the resulting need to file for disability retirement, often reveal an undertone of a common element:  after so many years of loyalty, how could the Agency show such callous lack of caring? 

I don’t have an answer to the question of lack of empathy on the part of an Agency; Agencies are made up of individuals; individuals show varying degrees of care, sympathy, and loyalty, but only up to a point:  if such care or empathy will somehow be perceived to harm the “mission of the Agency”, or if walking the proverbial “extra mile” for an individual who needs some temporary support is quite simply seen as “not worth the trouble,” then the individual will simply turn his or her back on the disabled individual.  When the individual turns his or her back on the employee filing for disability retirement, then the Agency turns its back on the person; for, again, Agencies are made up of individuals.  But what about the loyalty that was shown by the employee for all of those prior years?  How about the years of doing overtime, of doing extra work without complaint, etc. — doesn’t that account for some bilateral, reciprocal loyalty?  Unfortunately, it does not amount to much. Loyalty in today’s society is defined as:  What have you done for me today?  For the Federal and Postal Employee who needs to file for Federal Disability Retirement benefits, expect the worst; expect that your Agency will not be supportive during the 6 – 10 month administrative filing process.  Then, if by chance, a supervisor shows some empathy and support, you will have been pleasantly surprised.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

CSRS & FERS Disability Retirement: Confusion About The 1-year Rule

I am receiving too many questions about certain issues, which leads me to believe that a clarification is again in order. First, concerning the Statute of Limitations on filing for Federal disability retirement benefits. A Federal or Postal Employee must file for federal disability retirement benefits within one (1) year of being separated from Federal Service. Thus, if you have been on LWOP, or on OWCP, or on sick leave, but you are still receiving “zero-balance” paychecks which show that you have NOT been separated from service yet, then your 1-year statute of limitations has not yet even begun. The 1-year Statute of Limitations begins from the effective date of your separation from Federal Service. Your SF 50 (or, for Postal employees, PS Form 50) would reflect that date of separation.

Second, some of the questions which have been posed to me suggest that there is a misunderstanding as to the substantive requirements of the law, as well. A Federal or Postal worker does NOT have to have been medically unable to perform one’s job for a full year before filing for disability retirement. Rather, the requirement is prospective — that your medical condition must last for at least 1 year. Thus, normally after a few months of treating with your doctor, your doctor should be able to make a reasonable medical determination that your medical condition is going to last for at least a year, and more often than not, for much longer. The distinction which I am attempting to clarify can make a tremendous difference: Federal and Postal workers filing for federal disability retirement do not have to wait a year after learning of his or her medical condition — that would be foolish, especially because the process of obtaining disability retirement can itself often take 6 – 8, sometimes 10 – 12 months. Rather, a Federal or Postal worker can file soon after learning about a medical condition, so long as the treating doctor can provide a reasonable medical opinion that the condition will last for a minimum of 1 year. I hope that this will help clarify any confusion people may have about the “1-year” rule — both as it applies to the ability to file for federal disability retirement benefits, as well as to the issue of how long the medical condition must last.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

OPM Federal Disability Retirement: The Emergency Filing

On the desk of one of the Circuit Court clerks, in an adjacent county, is a sign which reads: “The fact that you waited until today does not make it into my emergency.” Those who stand in line to file an emergency pleading, either try to ignore the prominently-displayed sign, or hope that some other clerk will attend to his or her needs. Yet, we all know that there are times when, for one reason or another — the year passed so quickly; the medical reports which we expected months ago just arrived; “life happened” and the 1-year mark for filing for disability retirement is upon us — we have a couple of weeks, or perhaps a week, or perhaps only a couple of days, to file for Federal disability retirement benefits.

When such an emergency filing becomes necessary, three things must happen: First, the three essential forms must be quickly filled out (whether they are adequately and sufficiently filled out is another matter — but just remember that if you don’t at least meet the 1-year statute of limitations for filing for Federal disability retirement benefits, you are left with no argument at all; whereas, at least by filling out the forms and filing, regardless of their adequacy or completeness, you can at least argue later that it meant x or y). Those three (3) forms are: SF 3107 Application for Immediate Retirement for FERS; SF 2801 for CSRS; Schedules A, B & C for FERS & CSRS; and SF 3112A, Applicant’s Statement of Disability for FERS & CSRS. Second, fax the three completed forms to Boyers, PA, and Express Mail or FedEx it (and get a fax confirmation sheet); and Third, follow up with a phone call to Boyers to get the name of the person who will confirm that he/she received the fax.

Every now and then, “life happens”, and emergency filings are necessary. In a perfect world, such emergencies should be unnecessary; and while the clerk in the Circuit Court in an adjacent county might look with disgust upon the lawyer or pro-se individual attempting to file an “emergency” pleading, whether it is his emergency, her emergency, or someone else’s fault, the fact still remains: It needs to be filed on time.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

CSRS & FERS Disability: End of Year

The New Year is upcoming. For those who are anxiously awaiting a decision on their Federal Disability Retirement applications, remember that this is a continuing process. Thus, whether or not the application gets approved or denied prior to the coming New Year, the process of then having the Agency provide the necessary payroll information in order for interim payments to begin, will still take some time. Unfortunately, the Office of Personnel Management is a bureaucracy. Within each bureacracy, as with all such gigantic entities, there are individuals who are competent in what they do; others, less so. Once a disability retirement application has been approved, the best thing which can be done to expedite payment on an approved claim, is to be persistent (on a daily basis, and some times on an hourly basis); be cordial and professional with each person you speak with, but be firm; get the name, telephone number, and write down any “promises” which an OPM person makes or proposes to make; then get a firm date as to when the promise will be fulfilled. Also, it is helpful, if possible, to get a supervisor’s direct number. Remember, good manners and courtesy will get you a long way; “befriending” an individual will get you even further; and gaining a sympathetic ear will get you the farthest. Be persistent, patient, and a pain-in-the-behind — all at once.

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

CSRS & FERS Disability Retirement: The Physician I

Initial inquiries concerning filing for Federal and Postal disability retirement benefits often ask the following question: Do I have a doctor to whom I can refer the individual? This question often follows upon the unfortunate circumstance that the individual does not have a very supportive doctor, or has been under the “medical care” of an OWCP-referral doctor.  The answer is always an unequivocal:  No.  The reason:  The Merit Systems Protection Board is very clear about the issue — that in Federal Disability Retirement cases, a medical report is persuasive when written by a doctor who has a long-standing patient-doctor relationship; has had regular contact with the individual; has had clinical contact over a sufficient period of time, such that the doctor can, within reasonable medical probability, provide a rational basis for stating that the individual is no longer able to perform one or more of the essential elements of his or her job. Thus, even before considering taking a disability retirement, it is important for the individual to make a proper assessment as to whether or not one’s doctor is “supportive”; if not, it may be a good idea to think about switching doctors, and finding one who is supportive.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire