Postal employees with disabilities comprise a challenge unique to the group as a whole, precisely because of the inherent nature of the physical requirements of the work itself. Compounding this problem is the added difficulty of restricted access to vital information concerning options and benefits accessible — such as being eligible for Federal Disability Retirement benefits. Whether restricted access is deliberate and intentional (as one can extrapolate from the recent EEOC ruling concerning the National Reassessment Program and the systematic campaign perpetrated by the U.S. Postal Service to shed its rolls of employees who required special accommodations) or resulting from a centralized bureaucracy (where the single source of information is retained at a facility at the H.R. Shared Services in Greensboro, North Carolina), the plain fact is that many Postal employees don’t even know that they may be eligible for Federal Disability Retirement benefits under 5 U.S.C. 8451, et seq.
Confusion abounds. Life itself is confusing enough. The old idiom about “the straw that broke the camel’s back” aptly describes the stresses of modernity. We live in a stress-filled world; our daily lives are filled with so much busy-ness that we can barely attend to those things that are most important: Our jobs; our ability to maintain our finances; our kids and meeting their needs; our relationships, and meeting our own needs. Then, when a medical condition hits, it becomes the “last straw” that seemingly tears apart the fragile fabric that kept everything seamlessly together. Homophones — “seems” and “seams” — applies to our daily lives. We give the outward appearance — “seems” that we have everything put together — “seams” — when in fact what seems to be the case is a matter of seams that are stitched together in a haphazard manner.
We always think that it will never be “me”; that the misfortune we hear about — whether through anecdotal evidence, in the newspapers, or perhaps through word-of-mouth about a family member who has been hit with tragic circumstances — is something distant and will somehow never entangle or intrude upon our own lives. We buy insurance policies against disasters, but never think we will ever have to activate them. We eat meals “on the run”, knowing that we aren’t really taking good care of ourselves, but mistakenly thinking that the human body is strong enough to withstand some short-term mistreatment — until the days we do it turn into weeks; the weeks, aggregate into months; and the months become years and into decades of maltreatment. The youthful notion of invincibility and immortality somehow betrays our own inner sense of guilt. Then, the inevitable occurs: a medical condition hits us unexpectedly. But was it ever really unexpected?
The nature of the Postal System itself is contrary to human nature. The repetitive tasks required of most jobs, whether in the “Clerk Craft” or the carrier craft — and whether as a Rural Carrier or a City Carrier; as a Flat Sorter Clerk, a Mail Processing Clerk, a Distribution Clerk or a Sales, Service and Distribution Clerk or any number of related clerical jobs, the plain fact is that all of the “crafts” involved go against the grain of human dynamics in repetitive usage of the human anatomy. GM and Ford have robotic arms to open and shut the doors of a new vehicle to test the viability and longevity of manufactured parts. If something fails, the mechanical part can be replaced. For human beings, the “mechanical part” is a series of bones, tissues and cartilages that — while repair is possible — can never be fully replaced once damaged or injured.
Most Postal employees are familiar with OWCP/Department of Labor benefits. There is a general notion that if a Postal employee is injured on the job, there is a benefit that is accessible. The idea that there must be a causal nexus proven in order to qualify for OWCP (“Worker’s Compensation”) benefits is generally understood. Thus, if a person becomes injured while “on the job”, being compensated both for the injury itself as well as the loss of wages is fairly routine. But what about the door handle that snaps off of the automobile after the 10,000th pull? What happens if the knee begins to degenerate or the shoulder becomes beset with a chronic ache, slowly turning into a sharp pain? Can causality be so easily proven? Can it be proven that it is an “occupational disease or injury” that is “caused” by the particular type of work that the Postal employee has engaged in for multiple years?
Even if can be proven, how long will OWCP continue to pay the Postal employee until the Department of Labor does one of two things: (1) Assign a “Second Opinion” doctor (i.e., a so-called “Independent Medical Examination”) and deem that you are sufficiently recovered and ordered to return to full duty, or (2) find a job in the private sector that the (now former) Postal employee is considered “qualified” for, and deduct the anticipated yearly amount from the OWCP payments, thus ending one’s career? Is there an alternative?
Federal Disability Retirement is a benefit available for all Federal and Postal employees under FERS. The medical condition or injury does NOT have to result from an “on the job” injury, nor from an occupationally-related disease or injury. The medical condition, injury or disease can occur and be precipitated from a vacation, a skiing accident, an automobile mishap or any number of inconceivable incidents — and the mere fact that it is not “job-related” has no bearing on the eligibility criteria for a Federal Disability Retirement annuity. In other words, “causality” is not an issue, for the most part, in becoming eligible for Federal Disability Retirement benefits under FERS.
Postal employees with disabilities face a unique challenge in our society, precisely because few other industries require the daily, intensive and repetitive utilization of the human anatomy in such a consistent, self-abusive manner. What other position description requires the individual to engage in so many variables involving super-human efforts? Of constant standing, bending, lifting, reaching, being able to lift packages and parcels weighing up to 70 pounds of asymmetrical and awkward dimensions, and to do it day in and day out in harsh weather and adverse circumstances? It takes a healthy individual and tests the farthest limits of human durability and distance; and in the end, there comes a “breaking point” for even the strongest of the strong. It is because of this that Federal Disability Retirement is an important benefit that remains accessible and available, and should be considered by postal employees with disabilities in this world where the robot cannot yet replace the human Postal worker in the efficient processing and delivery of our mail.
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.