Is it an accident that so many Federal and Postal employees are unaware of the benefit of “Federal Disability Retirement” for FERS employees? Is it a deliberate “conspiracy of silence” — a benefit which exists but is not trumpeted by the Federal Government for fear of the floodgates of applications being opened?
More likely than not, there is another explanation: the new Federal employee is neither concerned nor interested in a benefit which one neither imagines nor foresees as a possible avenue of choice. The general rule in life is that the younger we are, the more invincible we believe we are; as one grows older (or wiser and more mature, as we like to think), thoughts of our own mortality and vulnerability become exponentially magnified. Like so many things in life, the very concepts of “disability” and “retirement” (leaving aside the compounding and conjoining of the two terms) are far and removed — until it becomes a living necessity.
When a medical condition begins to impact a Federal or Postal employee, it is important to know that the benefit termed as “Federal Disability Retirement” exists and is available. It is a benefit which is part of the total ’employment package” when an individual becomes a Federal or Postal employee. Federal Disability Retirement allows an employee to retire earlier, but not because he or she necessarily got enough years of Federal service to qualify for a retirement annuity (that would be “regular” retirement), but because the employee is medically unable to perform the essential functions of his or her present Federal job.
Thus, when one needs to access such a benefit, one should never think that there is something degrading or nefarious about applying for Federal Disability Retirement benefits — it is not an attempt to “game the system”; it is not a judgment upon the worth of an individual; it is not a conclusion to one’s life. Rather, it is a recognition that: (A) one suffers from a medical condition, which (B) impacts and impedes one’s ability to perform the essential elements of one’s Federal or postal job, and (C) that one is no longer a “good fit” for one’s particular job.
It does not mean that the Federal or Postal employee cannot be productive in some other capacity; indeed, the statutes and regulations governing disability retirement annuity payments allow for an individual to go out and become employed in another, different job, so long as it is (1) substantially different from the type of essential elements which prevented one from performing in the previous job, and (2) one makes no greater than 80% of what the prior (Federal or Postal) job currently pays.
Further, for purposes of determining minimum eligibility requirements, here are some additional “basics”: To be eligible for a disability retirement annuity under FERS or CSRS, a Federal or Postal employee must establish by a preponderance of the evidence that:
(1) he or she has completed a minimum of 18 months of Federal service (for FERS employees) or five years (for CSRS employees which, presumably, all CSRS employees already have the minimum eligible period of Federal service);
(2) while employed in a position subject to FERS or CSRS, the Federal or Postal employee becomes disabled because of a medical condition, resulting in a deficiency in performance, conduct, or attendance, or, absent such deficiency, the medical condition must be incompatible with either useful and efficient service or retention in the position;
(3) the disabling medical condition is expected to continue for at least one year from the date the application is filed; and
(4) accommodation of the disabling medical condition in the appellant’s former position or in an existing vacant position must be unable to be accomplished by the agency. 5 U.S.C. § 8337(a); 5 C.F.R. § 831.1203(a).
The above set of legal criteria constitute the “basics” of eligibility. Certain other elements should also be kept in mind:
The Federal employee need not prove that he or she is “totally disabled”; rather, the standard of proof which must be met is to merely show that he or she is unable, because of disease or injury, to render useful and efficient service in the position occupied.
Further, it is important to understand that “causality” is not an issue in Federal or Postal Disability Retirement law — unlike Federal Worker’s Compensation (OWCP). This is because, to be eligible for Federal Disability Retirement benefits, you don’t need to have an “on-the-job” injury, or suffer from an occupational disease or illness. You can be playing touch football in your backyard and break your leg, and if the condition of your medical disability lasts for at least a year, and prevents you from performing the essential elements of your job, then you are eligible for Federal Disability Retirement benefits.
One additional – but very important – point which must be considered in filing for Federal Disability Retirement benefits. First, one does not need to be separated from service in order to file for disability retirement. However, if a Federal or Postal employee is separated from service, that employee has only up to one (1) year to file for Federal Disability Retirement benefits. If you don’t file within one (1) year of being separated from service, you have lost the right to apply for such benefits forever.
Further, if a separation of service occurs, it is best to attempt to negotiate with the Agency to have the separation characterized as one based upon a medical reason — either explicitly (“separation is based upon your medical inability to perform your job”) or implicitly (“separation is based upon excessive absences,” combined with a reference in the proposed removal to medical conditions implying that the absences resulted from one’s medical conditions). I have written many articles as to why it is important to obtain a separation from the Federal service based upon one’s inability to perform one’s job. It is for the sake of securing what is known as the “Bruner Presumption“.
The “Bruner Presumption” is so named from a Federal Circuit Court case, Bruner v. Office of Personnel Management, 996 F.2d 290 (Fed. Cir. 1993). It essentially stands for the proposition that, if a Federal employee under FERS or CSRS is removed for his or her medical inability to perform the duties of his or her position, that such a specified removal constitutes “prima facie” evidence of entitlement to disability retirement. This legalese simply means that it makes it harder for the Office of Personnel Management to deny a disability retirement application. However, always remember that it is still, even with the Bruner Presumption, the responsibility of the applicant to show that he or she is entitled to disability retirement benefits — by having the necessary medical documentation showing that you cannot perform the essential elements of the job.
Like life insurance and health insurance, the fine print and details of the contractual benefits are often “out of sight” and “out of mind” — until the necessity arises. Federal Disability Retirement benefits are rarely considered until the need arises. It is a benefit accorded to all Federal and Postal employees, and is part of the “employment package” — the totality of compensatory benefits.
Placed on a linear spectrum, when an employee begins his or her Federal career, disability retirement benefits are merely an irrelevancy to set aside for those unnamed and faceless “old folks”; as one moves along the linear spectrum of life and career, however, and medical conditions develop over time, the benefits of a disability retirement annuity become magnified in importance. A lifetime of working to obtain a semblance of financial security need not become devastated because of a medical condition. A disability retirement annuity allows for a certain level of financial security – and secures a “fresh start” of productivity in allowing for a second career and a different occupation. While “out of sight” for today, it is nevertheless a benefit to be mindful of for the future.
Robert R. McGill is an attorney who specializes in Federal Disability Retirement, a practice area he dedicates 100% of his time helping Federal and Postal workers secure their disability retirement benefits under both FERS and CSRS. For more information about his legal services, publications and forum, please visit his Federal Disability Retirement website.