Five Myths about FERS Federal Disability Retirement

By on January 11, 2016 in Retirement with 12 Comments

Image of senior woman using a walker with caregiver

A sad failing of human nature is our tendency to take certain luxuries for granted. Take for instance, our health. We often presuppose our health and wellbeing are just attributes of life. It isn’t until we spend weeks in a hospital bed or feel the nagging pain of an old shoulder injury that we realize the true value of good health.

When our health declines, daily activities we used to view as simple suddenly become unbearable. We begin to fall behind at work. Sometimes, our career may even make matters worse. The repetitive lifting required of a postal worker, for example, takes a toll on an already agonizing back pang.

When your poor health begins to hinder your work performance, you need to prepare an exit strategy. For federal workers, applying for FERS federal disability retirement benefits may be a viable option.

Federal Disability Retirement is an occupational disability program for federal employees with over 18 months of service. The benefit is administered by the Office of Personnel Management (OPM), and is a part of the Federal Employee Retirement System (FERS). While the program can oftentimes be a life-changing asset for an injured or disabled federal worker, most know little about the benefit, and sometimes confuse common misconceptions as fact.

The following are five myths that need clarification:

  1. “You cannot qualify if you have an OWCP Federal Workers Compensation claim.”
    OWCP Federal workers’ compensation and FERS federal disability retirement are two completely different programs under two separate agencies (OWCP and OPM). You can apply and be approved for federal disability retirement while also having an ongoing OWCP claim; however, you cannot receive OWCP wage loss reimbursement benefits in conjunction with federal disability retirement. Since OWCP wage-loss reimbursement may sometimes be unexpectedly terminated, many federal workers choose to go ahead and apply for federal disability retirement and use the benefit as a contingency plan for when they exhaust their OWCP wage loss reimbursement.
  1. “The medical condition must be caused by work.”
    Many federal workers are often unaware of this critical point. While a work related injury very well may qualify for federal disability retirement, other non-work related conditions such as depression, cancer, or diabetes may also suffice. The medical condition must have arisen during your tenure as a federal employee, but it does not need to result from a work related activity.
  1. “You must have stopped working to apply or qualify for federal disability retirement.”
    It may seem counterintuitive, but you can actually apply for federal disability retirement while still employed with the federal government in both full-time and modified positions. It’s important to complete the application as soon as possible, since it can take anywhere from six months to one year for a decision. There is also a very strict one-year deadline from your formal date of separation to apply for the benefit.
  1. “You must also qualify for Social Security Disability.”
    It is true that when applying for federal disability retirement, you must also apply for social security disability. You do not, however, need to be approved. It is just an additional step in the application process. Whether or not you are approved for social security disability will have no direct effect on the outcome of your federal disability retirement application.
  1. “You have to be totally disabled to qualify.”
    The word “disability” sometimes causes federal workers to disregard the benefit in relation to their personal situation. They often don’t realize that federal disability retirement is for someone who is occupationally disabled, not totally disabled, which has a very different meaning.For a federal worker to be deemed occupationally disabled, they have to prove that their medical condition causes them to no longer successfully perform certain job duties required by their specific occupation.In other words, to qualify for federal disability retirement, your application must prove that you can no longer perform YOUR job – not that you can’t work any job.This is an important point to clarify both internally, to have a solid understanding of what the benefit entails, and when collecting medical evidence during the application process. The meaning of the word “disability” varies among practitioners, and you must make it clear to your doctor that you are needing to prove that you are occupationally disabled.

© 2016 Bo Harris. All rights reserved. This article may not be reproduced without express written consent from Bo Harris.

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About the Author

As a Chartered Federal Employee Benefit Consultant (ChFEBC), Bo Harris is passionate about helping federal employees obtain proper benefits. He joined Harris Federal Law Firm in 2002 and is now the firm’s Director of Operations. Harris Federal assists federal workers all over the country on employment matters, filing for OWCP workers’ compensation and FERS federal disability retirement benefits. Bo regularly leads training seminars for federal agencies and unions. To learn more, contact Bo at (877) 226-2723 or via email.

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