The Postal Worker today: FERS Disability Retirement, SSDI, and the doors opened through the recent case of Stephenson v. OPM
The one who considers himself wise will always seek 3 pathways: the shortest; the most fulfilling; and the third way which, while a longer route, may teach others along the way. The one who is truly wise never needs to consider the first two. 8th Century Chinese Proverb
So, it has come to this. The U.S. Postal Service – that hallowed entity recognized in the U.S. Constitution – will be “cutting back” again. The latest travail is the recent announcement that the Postal Service will no longer be delivering first class mail on Saturdays. It reminds one of the weekly Sunday tumults which we all experience in viewing football games – that team which goes ahead by a comfortable margin of points, only to lose the game because they begin to play in order not-to-lose. That is how the U.S. Postal Service has been acting and reactively responding to its economic circumstances throughout the past decade – shutting down central mail processing facilities; making already-overworked employees bear the brunt of consolidations and shutdowns; offering early-outs as incentives to those who have already become disgusted with the working conditions presently imposed; and, in general, trying to contain internal hemorrhaging rather than boldly advancing into the next century with a viable business plan for the future.
For the Craft Employees – those Postal Workers who perform the day-to-day physical, repetitively-damaging work as Letter Carriers, Mail Processing Clerks, Mail Handlers, Window Clerks, Distribution Clerks, etc. (as well as Supervisors and small Postal facility Postmasters who must also perform the daily grind of the actual work in order to ensure the smooth processing and distribution of the large volume of daily mail) – this can only mean attempting to squeeze out more productivity where such squeezing can no longer attain greater efficiency. This will put added pressure upon both the FERS & CSRS Disability Retirement annuity fund, as well as the Social Security Disability Insurance fund. For, as “squeeze-outs” go, Postal Workers are some of the most susceptible to becoming disabled because of the inherent nature of their work.
Disability Retirement, of course, is a viable option for the Postal Worker to consider when the years of repetitive-strain injuries take their toll and prevent the Postal Worker from performing one or more of the essential elements of one’s job. Further, as the Postal Service continues on its downward spiral of making employment conditions even more miserable than they already are, by cutting back, consolidating, and putting greater pressure upon work requirements with less of a workforce, the quantifiable number of Postal Workers who will no longer be able to perform one or more of the essential elements of his or her job, will exponentially increase. Some of the injuries and medical conditions will be serious enough to also allow for eligibility for Social Security Disability benefits – which, for FERS Postal employees, must be applied for anyway, in the process of filing for Federal Disability Retirement benefits.
In this fast-paced, ever-changing world, where employees are subjected to the annual – nay, daily, and sometimes hourly – vicissitudes of a global economy, where the technological advances of today outpace the loyalty and hard work of yesterday, it is necessary to keep all options open for consideration. For the Postal Worker who is daily and mercilessly vulnerable to the upper management decisions of the U.S. Postal Service, Federal Disability Retirement is an option which must be considered – if only because one cannot work to the extent of constantly and irreversibly damaging one’s body, mind and soul permanently.
A recent victory at the Circuit Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, in the case of Stephenson v. OPM, decided by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit on January 18, 2013, will ease some considerations for Postal Workers under the Federal Employees Retirement System (FERS), who must also file for Social Security Disability benefits as part of the process of filing for Federal Disability Retirement benefits. The FERS Postal employee who has a medical condition such that he or she is no longer able to perform one or more of the essential elements of one’s job, must concurrently (or sometime during the process) file for Social Security Disability Insurance benefits (SSDI). Most people who file for Federal Disability Retirement benefits never qualify for SSDI, however, because SSDI has a higher standard of what essentially constitutes “total disability”, where one is unable to engage in “gainful employment”. The standard of eligibility for FERS Disability Retirement benefits is a lower standard – of merely being unable to perform one or more of the essential elements of one’s particular kind of job. That is why a Federal Disability Retirement annuitant can go out and get a job while receiving a disability retirement annuity, and still make up to 80% of what one’s former position currently pays, in addition to the Federal Disability Retirement annuity.
For those Postal Workers who qualify for SSDI, along with FERS Disability Retirement benefits, there is an automatic offset of 100% for the first year of concurrent receipt of FERS & SSDI, and a 60% offset every year thereafter. For many, the receipt of FERS Disability Retirement annuity and SSDI combined to allow for a modest but livable income to compensate for an inability to engage in substantial gainful activity. Such a recipient could earn some income – about $1000.00 per month from part-time work – without endangering one’s FERS annuity and SSDI. But for those Postal employees who crossed the threshold of the allowable ceiling, the Social Security Administration would cut off the SSDI benefits after a period exceeding 9 months of earning beyond the ceiling. Once this occurred, the Postal employee would expect that, inasmuch as there is no longer any “offset” from SSDI, OPM would recalculate and restore the previously-offset amount, and give back the full FERS Disability Retirement annuity. Not so – until the win in Stephenson v. OPM.
For decades, OPM refused to restore the full amount of a FERS annuity despite the loss of the offsetting SSDI benefits. But Stephenson v. OPM, decided by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit on January 18, 2013 – a case which the undersigned attorney argued on behalf of Mr. Stephenson (and, by collateral accrual, for all those similarly-situated Federal and Postal employees who had found themselves in such circumstances as the fact-scenario described in Stephenson v. OPM) – now mandates that when the Postal employee who is concurrently on FERS Disability Retirement and SSDI loses his SSDI benefits, and therefore is no longer receiving the offsetting SSDI payment, then OPM must recalculate the FERS Disability Retirement annuity and restore the previously-reduced amount, back to the original annuity amount. This makes sense, of course, because how can OPM offset an amount which is no longer being received? It took, however, submission of a legal brief, and oral arguments before a 3-Judge Panel at the Circuit Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, in order to force OPM into “seeing” such a sensible interpretation of the law.
What is the impact of Stephenson v. OPM for the Postal Worker of today? As greater economic pressures mount from “above”; as agencies are forced to cut back; as greater productivity is mandated (ignoring whether or not such increased efficiency is even realistically feasible); and, as more and more Postal Workers are injured or become progressively debilitated as a result of the daily grind of both the physical and mental stresses put upon them – greater options and alternatives must be allowed for in order to compensate the potential for progressive deterioration of the workforce. Stephenson v. OPM rights an obvious wrong of past misdeeds perpetrated by the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, and allows the greater options to be considered: If needed, SSDI benefits can be aggressively pursued; if, after some period of time, the person who concurrently receives SSDI and FERS can return back to gainful employment, then that option can also be considered – without the fear of refusal of restoration of the full FERS Disability annuity.
In this world where change and adaptation is a requirement for the survival of the fittest, where the economic gurus of the world dictate the harsh reality of cutbacks – it is good to know that there are greater avenues and alternatives available, if and when it becomes necessary to file for Federal Disability Retirement benefits under FERS, and for Social Security Disability benefits concurrently. Stephenson v. OPM has expanded such avenues; it remains up to each Federal and Postal Worker to be vigilant in fighting to keep open all such roads to economic viability.
An exclusive to PostalReporter.com
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 and U.S. Postal Service Disability Retirement websites.