OPM Disability Retirement: The Freedom of Retirement

In this still-fragile economy, many people are rightly concerned that, upon an approval for FERS Disability Retirement 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 Federal 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: Service Deficiency & Medical Condition

The Office of Personnel Management will often use as a criteria of denial the argument/basis that despite the fact that an individual may have a medical condition such that the medical documentation states that the Federal or Postal worker can no longer perform one or more of the essential elements of one’s job, nevertheless, there has not been a showing that a “service deficiency” has occurred.  Often, agencies systematically write up performance appraisals without much thought or consideration; more often, Federal and Postal workers quietly suffer through his or her medical condition, and strive each day to meet the requirements of their duties.

Whatever the reason for the lack of attention or perception on the part of the supervisor or the agency to recognize that the Federal or Postal worker has not been able to perform one or more of the essential elements of one’s job, such basis for a denial of a Federal Disability Retirement application by the Office of Personnel Management is not a legitimate one, because existence of a “service deficiency” is not the whole story:  if it is found that retention in the job is “inconsistent” with the type of medical condition the Federal or Postal Worker has, then such a finding would “trump” the lack of any service deficiency.  That is not something, however, that the Office of Personnel Management is likely to tell you as they deny your FERS Disability Retirement application.

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

OPM Disability Retirement: Do Psychiatric Disabilities Still Carry a Stigma?

Do Psychiatric Conditions still carry a stigma?  Does the Office of Personnel Management, or the Merit Systems Protection Board, treat Psychiatric medical conditions any differently than, say, bulging discs, degenerative disc disease, or carpal tunnel syndrome, etc.?  Is there a greater need to explain the symptoms of psychiatric conditions, in preparing an Applicant’s Statement of Disability, than conditions which can be “verified” by diagnostic testing?  Obviously, the answer should be: There is no difference of review of the medical condition by OPM or the MSPB.

Certainly, this should be the case in light of Vanieken-Ryals v. OPM.  Neither OPM nor an MSPB Judge should be able to impose a requirement in disability retirement cases involving psychiatric disabilities, that there needs to be “objective medical evidence,” precisely because there is no statute or regulation governing disability retirement which imposes such a requirement that “objective” medical evidence is required to prove disability.  As I stated in previous articles, as long as the treating doctor of the disability retirement applicant utilizes “established diagnostic criteria” and applies modalities of treatment which are “consistent with generally accepted professional standards,” the evidence presented concerning psychiatric disabilities should not be treated any differently than that of physical disabilities.

As the Court in Vanieken-Ryals stated, OPM’s adherence to a rule which systematically demands medical evidence of an “objective” nature and refuses to consider “subjective” medical evidence, is “arbitrary, capricious, and contrary to law.”  Yet, when preparing the Applicant’s Statement of Disability, it is always wise to utilize greater descriptive terms.  For, when dealing with medical conditions such as Bipolar disorder, Major Depression, panic attacks, anxiety, etc., one must use appropriate adjectives and “triggering”, emotional terms — if only to help the OPM representative or the Administrative Judge understand the human side of the story.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

OPM Disability Retirement: The Responsibility of the Office of Personnel Management

Perhaps it is an anomaly to even speak about the issue of “the responsibility” of the Office of Personnel Management — at least, from the general consensus of experiences as told by countless individuals who have filed for disability retirement benefits from the Office of Personnel Management, especially in recent years, one might conclude that OPM is slow to respond, or often refuses to respond at all.

However, to be fair, OPM — as with all other Federal Agencies — is made up of individuals; and the “good” or “bad” of an Agency is entirely dependent upon such individuals.  Most of the disability retirement specialists at OPM are, in my opinion, of the “good” sort.  Without naming names, there are a few of the “bad” sort.  Of course, that says very little, because such a generalized statement could be true of all Federal Agencies.

Moreover, OPM is presently short-staffed, overworked, and way behind on the processing of disability retirement claims.  What used to be a 60-day wait at the initial application stage is taking 90 – 120 days; and at the Reconsideration (2nd) Stage, what used to take 90 days is now taking 120 – 150 days, in many cases.

More than the “time” it takes, however, just remember that the primary responsibility of OPM is to take a careful and serious look at your disability retirement application/packet.  Also, remember that those disability retirement packets which are streamlined, logically constructed, and coherently argued, are the ones which will likely be quickly processed.  Don’t just strap a volume of medical records onto an application and hope for approval; in this day and age, it might be a wise investment to hire an attorney to “streamline” your packet.

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

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.  FERS 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 Federal 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

Agency Loyalty and OPM Disability Retirement

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