By Attorney Robert R. McGill
The golden days of yesteryear are gone. Time was, employment with the U.S. Postal Service was not merely another job, but a career that ensured job satisfaction, income security, and a sense of investment for the future. Then, technology and the promise of innovation arrived; “efficiency” was the word for tomorrow, and the fast-paced society of futuristic unpredictability fostered fears of insecurity, where inception for change was originally based upon greater enhancement of stability, but such promises became relegated to anachronism of rusted and empty declarations. Somewhere along the line, the community letter carrier who represented the cohesiveness between bureaucracy and neighborhood boundaries began to fade, replaced by timed routes, collective mailboxes, and the master plan to end Saturday mail delivery.
Will tomorrow’s today be like yesterday’s today? One’s perspective is always a clash of the collective memories of the past, the view of one’s “now”, and the anticipation for tomorrow; but within that vantage point is always dominated by what we perceive presently. For the modern Postal Worker, job security is not what yesterday’s today was or is; and as greater efficiency forces every Postal Worker to do exponentially more with fewer helpers, within tighter time constraints, and in greater volume, the plan for tomorrow’s today must always retain a view of benefits available “in the event of”.
While one never plans for a shortened career, it is always a good idea to keep in mind that in the event of an unexpected medical condition, there is the benefit of Federal Disability Retirement to consider. Is there an exponential increase of medical disabilities? Or, are we merely more aware of everyone’s private medical history because of the widespread dissemination of information through media outlets, the Internet, and the constant conveyance of shared knowledge? Physical injuries from repetitive-strains; accidents at the workplace; psychiatric conditions from the constant pressure for greater efficiency and maximized productivity; somehow, modern society appears evermore the reservoir of indifference to the today of tomorrow’s workers.
Federal Disability Retirement benefits are part of the employment compensation package for the modern Postal Worker. Once considered a “full-fledged” member of the Federal system, Postal workers today still enjoy the benefits from being a quasi-member of the greater Federal workforce. After the change from the old retirement system (Civil Service Retirement System, or under the acronym, “CSRS”) to the “new” one Postal employees recognize as the “Federal Employees Retirement System” or FERS, the changeover (sometime around 1986) has taken decades to transition in full, where today, the old system rarely sees a surviving member. They are all fading into the twilight of retirement.
For those under FERS, the retirement system itself is based upon a 3-pronged future for viability of income security: the Thrift Savings Plan (TSP), which allows for FERS employees to contribute in conjunction and partnership with Federal enhancement; Social Security, which the FERS employee contributes to; and the payout from the acronym itself – the “Federal Employees Retirement System”. Where does Federal Disability Retirement come into play? It is, in essence, one’s annuity, but taken early because of an unexpected medical condition. The TSP remains in place (although the Federal contribution portion ends); one must, as a FERS employee filing for Federal Disability Retirement benefits, concurrently (or sometime during the process) file for Social Security Disability benefits; and one of the advantages in being on Federal Disability Retirement (as opposed to remaining on OWCP, which will normally pay more but restricts the Postal employee from being employed in another vocation, and further limits the flexibility allowed under FERS Disability Retirement) is that the time that one is on Federal Disability Retirement counts towards the total number of years of Federal Service, such that when the Federal Disability Retirement annuity is recalculated at age 62, the time while on Federal Disability Retirement counts in conjunction with the years of Federal Service accrued prior to getting on Federal Disability Retirement. Thus, in essence, one is actually “growing” one’s final annuity calculation, by being on Federal Disability Retirement.
The issue concerning filing for Social Security Disability is often a confusing one. Most Postal employees who file for Federal Disability Retirement benefits continue to remain “on the rolls” of the U.S. Postal Service while awaiting a decision from the U.S. Office of Personnel Management. Thus, filing for Social Security Disability often becomes an act of futility and an inconsequential effort, precisely because filing while “still employed” is a self-defeating process when it comes to SSDI. Conversely, the U.S. Office of Personnel Management is interested in Social Security only to the extent that an offset between SSDI and FERS Disability Retirement will occur, if both are concurrently approved. But filing for SSDI while employed will only result in an automatic denial of SSDI – but not on the basis of disqualification resulting from one’s medical condition (or lack thereof), but because of income-issues. And since OPM is interested in seeing whether the Postal worker under FERS would qualify based upon one’s medical condition (See Trevan v Office of Personnel Management, 69 F.3d 520, 526-27 (Fed. Cir. 1995), wherein the Federal Circuit Court found that in making a determination of eligibility for disability retirement under FERS, the Board must consider an award of SSA disability benefits together with medical evidence provided by the appellant to OPM, and other evidence of disability. This is because the Federal Circuit Court wanted a consistency of determinations concerning disabilities, by all governmental agencies and departments. Social Security obviously has a stricter standard, and requires that an applicant be “totally disabled” in order to award benefits), and not based upon employment standards, it would logically follow that the proper time for the FERS Federal Disability Retirement applicant to file for Social Security Disability benefits, should be after separation from the Postal Service. Be that as it may, most Human Resource offices – and the U.S. Postal Service’s H.R. Shared Services in Greensboro, North Carolina, is no different – insist that the Federal Disability Retirement applicant must file for Social Security Disability benefits prior to routing the Federal Disability Retirement application over to OPM. And so it goes – a formality of merely filing online should be completed, a receipt printed out and attached to the Federal Disability Retirement application packet, just so that it will make some headway towards being placed in a waiting line for further processing and final determination by OPM.
For the Postal Worker of today, having the benefit of being under the FERS program grants the continuing advantage of Federal Disability Retirement. It is not a perfect system, but it does allow for a base annuity for reliance of security for tomorrow. While on Federal Disability Retirement, the (now former) Postal Worker is also allowed to work at another job, and make up to 80% of what one’s former position currently pays – on top of the disability retirement annuity. If Social Security is concurrently obtained, then there is an offset between the two benefits (100% for the first year of concurrent receipt of benefits, and 60% for the second and subsequent years of concurrent annuities), and as Social Security disability has a much lower threshold of allowable earned income before loss of the benefit, those former Postal workers who are able to obtain employment in the private sector should take this into account when considering how hard one should try in filing for Social Security Disability benefits in the first place.
Federal Disability Retirement is not for everyone. If, despite pain or cognitive dysfunction, one is able to continue remaining productive as a U.S. Postal Worker, then “sticking it out” may be the better option. If, on the other hand, it becomes clear that (1) one’s medical condition prevents one from performing one or more of the essential elements of one’s job, and (2) the medical condition is going to last a minimum of 12 months, then Federal Disability Retirement may be the best alternative to consider. For, as yesterday’s today is quite different from today’s today, so the future with all of its vicissitudes of prospects yet to be revealed must make for tomorrow’s today to be considered with a healthy dose of consternation and suspicion, before taking the necessary steps to prepare, formulate and file for Federal Disability Retirement benefits.
About the Author
Attorney Robert R. McGill specializes in securing Federal Disability Retirement benefits for Federal and Postal workers under both FERS and CSRS. He represents Federal and Postal employees from all across the United States, from the West Coast to the East, and every state in between, as well as Alaska, Hawaii, Puerto Rico, Europe, Japan, etc. For more information about his legal services, please visit his Federal Disability Retirement website and the Postal Service Disability Retirement blog