CSRS & FERS Disability Retirement: The (non) Problem of Causality & Causation

In a Worker’s Comp (DOL/OWCP/FECA) case, causation and causality often loom as significant issues, and doctors often have to walk a difficult line in making unequivocal statements, or somewhat equivocating statements, as to the “cause” of a medical condition or injury.  Such statements can sometimes be the singular focus as to the success or failure of an OWCP case.  Why?  Because OWCP compensable injuries and medical conditions must be related to the job — either as something caused by an accident while on the job, or in some way occupationally related.

In Federal Disability Retirement cases under FERS or CSRS, one can be on a skiing vacation and incur in an injury, and so long as that person is unable to, because of the injury or illness, perform one or more of the essential elements of one’s job, one is thereby eligible for Federal Medical Retirement benefits under FERS & CSRS.

Sometimes, however, the issue of causation comes into the picture, but can work in a detrimental way, but need not.  Let me clarify:  In a chemical sensitivity case, or a psychiatric condition which finds its originating “causation” from the workplace, the doctor may want to relate the “cause” of the health condition directly to the workplace.  This is fine, so far as it goes — and, ironically, most doctors (because they have no idea about FERS or CSRS medical retirement) think they are doing their patients a favor by relating it as “causally related” to the workplace.  More often than not, however, it can open up a “can of worms” — of being characterized by the Office of Personnel Management as a “situational disability”, which must be avoided like the plague.

Sincerely, Robert R. McGill, Esquire

OPM Disability Retirement: The Freedom of Retirement

In this still-fragile economy, many people are rightly concerned that, upon an approval for Federal Disability Retirement under FERS or CSRS, that it will be difficult to “make up” the income with another job, even though a person under Federal Disability Retirement can earn up to 80% of what one’s former Federal or Postal position currently pays.

Yes, it can be tough; yes, the economy is a concern; but recessions ultimately come to an end, and while a job to make up the severe pay-cut may be long in coming, self-employment, to begin a start-up business, or to work part-time is often an excellent opportunity.  Unlike having the larger percentage of pay under OWCP-DOL benefits, a disability retirement annuity under FERS or CSRS is indeed a greater pay-cut.

But salary is not everything; the freedom of retirement, the ability to determine one’s future, and not be under the constant and close scrutiny of Worker’s Comp, accounts for much.  Where some see a severe pay-cut, others see as an opportunity to begin a second career.  And the price of freedom from those onerous fiefdoms of federal agencies is often better health, and greater enjoyment of one’s freedom and retirement.

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: 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

OPM Disability Retirement: This Economy & Opportunities

I have written and emphasized this issue before, but it is an issue which must be reiterated, re-emphasized, and re-stated: those who file for and obtain disability retirement do not need to feel like their lives are being retired. This is not an admission or an acknowledgment of an end; rather, it is an opportunity for a beginning.

Federal Disability Retirement is merely a time when one sector of one’s life is about to move on into a different sector and phase of one’s life.  It is merely a concession that the long and productive career which one has enjoyed, is simply no longer the “best fit”, and it is time to go on and move on into another sector of life.

Thus, a disability retirement annuitant has the opportunity, even in this tough economy, to look into multiple other and future opportunities. A disability annuitant has multiple advantages in this economy: excellent health insurance that is carried; an annuity which allows for him/her to work part or full time; the ability to pick and choose the opportunities; and a professional background and resume of a long and excellent career in the Federal sector.

OPM Disability Retirement is an option and an opportunity; it is not the “end” of a career; rather, it is the beginning of a future opportunity.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

CSRS & FERS Disability Retirement: The Federal Worker

Whether you work for the U.S. Postal Service, the FAA, the Secret Service, OSHA, FDIC, or one of the other countless governmental agencies, don’t ever think that filing for disability retirement is an “act of surrender” or one which is somehow “taking advantage of the system”.

In the private sector, it is the salary-compensation that is emphasized.  In the Federal sector, it is the “total package” of benefits:  less salary-based emphasis, more on other benefits, such as health insurance, life insurance, set number of days for annual leave and sick leave — and disability retirement benefits.

Thus, filing for disability retirement is not a “welfare” move — rather, it is an acknowledgment that you can no longer perform one or more of the essential elements of your job, and you are no longer a “good fit” for that particular job.  Remember that, when filing for disability retirement, the Agency itself must attempt to see whether it can (A) reassign you to another job at the same pay or grade (which is almost never) or (B) legally accommodate you (which, also, is almost never).

Further, disability retirement is not a benefit which pays you such that you can “live high on the hog”; rather, it is a base annuity, with the understanding that you can go out and get another job making up to 80% of what your former position currently pays.  In other words, in most cases, you are expected to go out and be productive in other ways.

Far from being a “welfare benefit” — it is part of the total compensation package you signed onto, and to which the Federal government agreed to.

Sincerely, Robert R. McGill, Esquire

Is There Life after a Disability in the Federal Workplace?

In tough economic times, it is often difficult to find that “silver lining”. This is even truer for my clients who obtain disability retirement benefits from the Federal Government, as well as those contemplating it. For, ultimately, I always find (without exception) that Federal and Postal Workers who are contemplating filing for disability retirement don’t want to be in the position he/she finds him/herself in.

They have been loyal and hard working Federal employees.  They have shown such loyalty through years and years of committed service.  But, for whatever reasons, and for whatever circumstances and situations, a sudden medical condition, or a degenerative medical condition, has brought that loyal employee to a point where he or she is no longer a “good fit” for a particular kind of job.

Such an employee can often be placed on a PIP (“Performance Improvement Plan”), or be given a Letter of Warning, or be placed on Leave Restrictions, or be told that no more light duties are available — all indicators that the Federal Agency or the particular Post Office is no longer willing to engage in “bilateral loyalty” — in other words, your 20 years of Federal Service will be rewarded with a boot out the door.

But such Federal and Postal employees must always have a positive attitude:  disability retirement benefits are there for you when they are normally unavailable in the private sector; while it pays a flat amount which one may not be able to necessarily live on, it is nevertheless a “base annuity” that can be depended upon.  And, further, a recent New York Times article concerning the state of the present economy pointed out what I have noted in the past:  Private Companies are hiring more and more older workers who have their own health insurance benefits, and who can work part-time without benefits.

That accurately describes the disability retirement annuitant, who is able to make up to 80% of what his/her former position pays now, on top of the disability retirement annuity, and retain life & health insurance benefits.  Always look for the silver lining.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

CSRS & FERS Disability Retirement: Investment for the Future

Ultimately, whether or not this is an optimum time for an individual to file for Federal Disability Retirement under FERS or CSRS is a decision each individual must make, depending upon the specific circumstances.

From a medical standpoint, of course, most individuals have no choice because he/she must file for disability retirement.  From an economic standpoint, as private companies cut back and begin relying upon a part-time workforce without needing to pay for a worker’s health insurance benefits and other benefits, a Federal Disability Retirement Annuitant is a very attractive potential worker, indeed, because most such annuitants retain their own health insurance benefits.

Such an annuitant can go out and find a job making up to 80% of what his/her former job currently pays, and still continue to receive the disability annuity.  Further, while each individual must make a decision concerning hiring an attorney to help secure disability retirement benefits, it should always be looked upon as a long-term investment.

Disability annuitants may be chosen randomly every two years to answer a Medical Questionnaire, and it is equally important to retain the benefits, as it is to initially secure it.  These are all issues which must be considered carefully, as an investment for the future.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

Federal Disability Retirement & the Economy

I have been asked, via multiple emails, of my opinion concerning the right time to file for disability retirement, given the state of the current economy. I am not an economist; I am an attorney who specializes in obtaining disability retirement benefits for Federal and Postal employees under FERS & CSRS. With that prefatory caution, let me state that I am an optimist, and always see the glass as “half full” as opposed to “half empty”.

First, if a Federal or Postal employee can no longer perform the essential elements of one’s job, then it is probably time to file for disability retirement. Second, while disability retirement does not pay a great amount of money, it is a base annuity which allows one to go out and start a “second career”, and make up to 80% of what a person’s former position presently pays, on top of the disability annuity. Further, because disability retirement allows one to retain one’s health insurance benefits, such an individual can be an attractive candidate to a private employer, because of the lack of need to insure the person in the course of his/her the second career. Third, in a tough economy, part-time employment is often more available, and so it is often a good economy for individuals who have a base annuity to rely upon, and who are looking for supplemental income.

In any event, one should always look at disability retirement benefits as an opportunity to preserve one’s deteriorating health, and move on to pursue other avenues of opportunities.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

FERS & CSRS disability retirement: The Proper Paradigm

Whether we like to admit it or not, we all operate, in all segments of our lives, from a certain “paradigm” (reference Thomas Kuhn, Structures of Scientific Revolutions) or “world-view”. When it comes to Federal Disability Retirements, the majority of Federal and Postal workers who comes to me have a pre-formed, generally negative attitude about the chances of getting it. This is because they have heard too many horror stories; or they have had horrendous experiences with OWCP filings, or EEOC complaints, or other experiences which they then relate to how the disability retirement process must be.

Yet, all Federal and Postal employees must understand that the process of Federal Disability Retirement has many, many inherent advantages which make it different from other processes. For instance, the Merit System Protection Board has often observed, with respect to disability retirement, that it is distinguishable from other processes, because it is not — strictly speaking — an adversarial process between an agency and an employee; rather, the MSPB sees it simply as a single issue — that of an employee’s entitlement to disability retirement.

Further, the role of the Office of Personnel Management, while seemingly one of making things overly difficult for the individual, in reality has a very difficult time in ultimately justifying a denial. Why? Because they do not have a right to have a doctor of their own to examine the applicant/patient (note the difference with OWCP, where you can be sent to second, third, and sometimes fourth medical opinions by doctors chosen by DOL and paid by DOL). Thus, it is almost as if OPM must disprove a case filed by an applicant. Finally, it is difficult to attack a treating doctor of an applicant, unless there is something seriously wrong with the credentials or competence of the treating doctor. All in all, disability retirement for Federal and Postal Workers is a fair process — one which is a valuable benefit for the Federal and Postal Employee.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire