By Attorney Robert R. McGill
What should man fear the most? Not the tiger whose jaws may cut a man in half; nor another man, whom he may fight hand to hand. No, it is the insidious application of the Emperor’s edicts as interpreted by his minions, by the slow churning of injustices committed, and the stresses placed upon a man through legal robbery. — From Hsui-Tung and the Emperor’s Edicts
Stress is an inherently commonplace element in the workplace. Whether on a farm tending to sick animals or attempting to meet a deadline in order to satisfy a client, workplace stress is a factor which must be tolerated in any employment arena. For the U.S. Postal Worker, such stresses are compounded by the corporate imposition of a top-down organizational infrastructure incentivizing short-term profits reflected on a skewed economic model, threatened with oversight by an unsympathetic Congress, always at the expense of labor – of the craft employees who must work with less, and refuse to allow the hostile work environment to interfere with the task at hand, lest the corporate conspiracy of malfeasance suddenly awaken and begin the process of disciplinary measures, with only the skeleton of the craft employee’s union to counter management, who are often in bed with them anyway.
Stress is an ever-present force. It robs and saps, and continually undermines. Different individuals have varying tolerance levels for handling and dealing with stress, and the particularization of personalities is unfortunately rarely recognized by employers. Of course, sometimes stress can be a positive force – as in short durations of incentives to initiate where necessity begets the mother of invention. But for the Postal Worker – the craft employees who are City Carriers, Mail Processing Clerks, Distribution Clerks, Custodial Laborers, Maintenance Mechanics, Mail Handlers; and Postmasters at small facilities, mid-level Supervisors for Customer Service, and Maintenance Managers for large facilities; and many more – the stress of work can and will take its toll upon the body, mind, and soul.
In philosophy, ever since the dichotomy of mind and body as proposed by Descartes (and even before, throughout the writings of such classical Greek philosophers as Plato and Aristotle), the interface and interplay between the mind and the body was a mystery of shrouded conceptual puzzlements. The impact of external environmental influences via the perceptual constructs of the human mind and consciousness, and the consequential reverberations of physical manifestations, created a conundrum for philosophers and theologians alike; for, man as a spiritual being in a physical body, presented a dualism which the physical universe could not define, and of which the immaterial and transcendent universe could not explain.
Such macro-mysteries always pervade; but in the microcosm of the everyday work-a-day world, the paradigm which provides for the substantive evidence of the interplay between mind-and-body is the daily impact of stress upon our lives. We live it. Postal Workers, especially, are devastated by it. There is at its most fundamental core the physical stress imposed by technological innovations – of the repetitive-work injuries resulting in spinal cervical and lumbar disc degeneration; Carpal Tunnel Syndrome (CTS); subacromial bursitis and rotator cuff tears; chronic knee pain; and multiple other conditions resulting from repetitive-stress injuries. Technology requires efficiency; efficiency is based upon a paradigm of assembly-line work; assembly-line work mandates repetitive physical exertion; repetitive exertion results in physical injuries from the constant impact upon the same or similar anatomical utilization in the workplace. For the Postal Worker, this is a daily encounter, an existential reality, and a known occupational hazard.
Then, of course, there is the psychological factor of stress. Stress-related medical conditions are often spawned by one’s workplace environment, resulting in Major Depression, Generalized Anxiety Disorder, uncontrollable panic attacks, as well as suicidal and homicidal ideations. Stress is often the trigger for other medical conditions, including physical manifestations in reaction to the psychological impact. Furthermore, because it is a workplace factor existent in almost every employment arena, it is normally not a basis in which to singularly proceed with a Federal Disability Retirement application. But as a trigger which becomes the progenitor of multiple physical and psychological manifestations, it can be historically mentioned; just not the central basis, and certainly not for a Federal Disability Retirement application.
Care must be taken in preparing, formulating and filing for Federal Disability Retirement benefits from the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, whether under FERS or CSRS. Thus, by way of example, in the case of Guthrie v. OPM, 2007 MSPB 121 (AT-844E-06-1002-I-1, decided April 17, 2007), the Merit Systems Protection Board reiterated that the Appellant “must show that she is unable to perform her job duties in general and not only in the context of what she sees as a hostile environment.” Further, the appellant’s evidence “suggests that she would be able to perform the duties of her job in a less stressful environment.” Indeed, that is the essence of the problem with stress, and in making stress the central feature of any Federal Disability Retirement application — it can easily be deemed as situational, and as such, can be a basis for a denial of a Federal Disability Retirement application.
For, the argument goes something like this: Stress is an inherent element of every workplace environment. It is that factor which is everywhere, yet is often indefinable; yet, its presence is pervasive; it increases on some days, and may be particularly an exacerbating factor in certain situations and offices. While it is recognized as an impediment to one’s ability or inability to perform one or more of the essential elements of one’s job, removal of the worker from a particularly stressful work environment and placing him or her in a different office, but doing the same kind of work, makes the medical inability to perform one’s job merely “situational” – i.e., confined to a unique situation of an identified office or agency. As such, because the Postal Worker is able to perform the actual work if placed in a different workplace setting (say, at a UPS or FedEx Office where everyone smiles, is purportedly happy, and is free of everyday stresses), it proves (so the argument continues) that the worker does not suffer from a medical condition which prevents him or her from performing one or more of the essential elements of one’s job; rather, it merely shows that he or she cannot perform it in a particular, situational setting.
How does one counter such an argument? Perhaps this is why the Postal Service is so carefree and unrestrained in its approach to creating a hostile work environment — knowing that the Postal Worker has few options when the mere situational stresses of the workplace become unbearable. The answer lies in the fact that, while a medical condition may be triggered within the microcosm of a workplace setting, it rarely remains within the confines and structural parameters of the office or agency. This is where both Federal and Postal employees make the grievous mistake in formulating a Federal Disability Retirement application: in the course of obtaining psychotropic or therapeutic modalities of treatment, they continue to ruminate and focus upon the hostility of the work environment, as opposed to emphasizing the manifested medical conditions themselves — Major Depression, Anxiety, cognitive dysfunctions; or, with physical injuries, and not to focus upon what the Postal Service or the Federal Agency did, but upon the medical conditions themselves. It is often difficult not to keep complaining of the wrongs committed by another; but in preparing a Federal Disability Retirement application under FERS or CSRS, it is important to recognize that causality is never an issue, and so the focus must be recalibrated from what happened, to how the consequential impact resulted in a medical condition such that the diagnosed condition now prevents one from performing one or more of the essential elements of one’s job.
For, chances are that the triggering environment has resulted in a medical condition which has become all-pervasive: i.e., the psychiatric conditions are no longer confined to one’s workplace, but continue to haunt and envelope one’s total being both inside the workplace, and away from it. Those two elements comprise the key to a “stress” claim: a resulting medical condition, and the impact of that medical condition beyond the parameters of the workplace setting which triggered the stress claim to begin with. This is important to recognize, identify, and prepare for in formulating a Federal Disability Retirement case, to be filed with the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, if one intends to be successful in such a claim. For, the point of any filing is to succeed, and in order to be successful, one must always prepare for the inevitable: OPM’s scrutiny (valid), the Postal Service’s uncaring attitude in creating a hostile work environment (invalid); and the devastating impact upon the workers of the U.S. Postal Service (a reality).
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 U.S. Postal Service Disability Retirement blog.
The article above was written exclusively for PostalReporter,com