Federal Disability Retirement Through OPM: A Life-Changing Event

For Federal employees and U.S. Postal workers, filing for Federal Disability Retirement benefits through the U.S. Office of Personnel Management is a life-changing event and a leap into the unknown. The author outlines some important terms and steps to know to help federal employees with the filing process.

He who fails to worry about the future, neglects to learn from the past, and refuses to consider the present. And as the rabbit that sees the fox for a shadow must hop into the abyss of its own ignorance, so the man who ignores the future shall fall into the hole of his own making.

— Norse Proverbs from Twilight Skies

What makes a person hesitate, when trepidation from purposive action can result in greater harm the longer procrastination is embraced? Fear; inability to accept change; insecurity about the future; but most importantly, the medical condition itself? Or, perhaps, all of the above.

For Federal employees and U.S. Postal workers, filing for Federal Disability Retirement benefits through the U.S. Office of Personnel Management is not only a life-changing event – one which follows upon the originating trauma of the medical condition itself – but, moreover, a headlong jump into an unknown future.

As such, it is understandable that the step from receiving news about a medical condition which impacts one’s ability and capacity to perform the essential elements of one’s positional duties, to preparing the methodological path necessary to effectively formulate and file a viable Federal Disability Retirement application through OPM, is often delayed, procrastinated, and kicked down the proverbial road of future uncertainty.

There is, first and foremost, a need to recognize that a wide chasm exists between having a diagnosed medical condition, and accepting that the medical condition will remain a permanent feature of one’s life, lifestyle, and pace of life.

The avid runner who suffers a debilitating back condition understandably delays accepting the modification of recreational physical exercise; the eclectic reader who suffers the progressive loss of visual acuity, must slowly accede to the ever-increasing resignation of impending darkness; and the Federal employee and U.S. Postal worker who spent more than a third of one’s daily life, for perhaps multiple decades, with coworkers and interactions with vendors, contractors and intersections of other career cross-sections, must come to the inevitable grips with a drastic change from the once-familiar routine of work.

Then, there is a conceptual recognition of a difference between “having a medical condition”, which must be accepted and adapted to, and “proving” that a medical condition entitles the Federal or Postal employee to Federal Disability Retirement benefits.

What constitutes a “viable” Federal Disability Retirement case? What are the factors and elements which provide for an “effective” application?

First, some nomenclature differentiations will be important to consider, as many Federal and Postal employees become confused as to the process, the steps involved, and the prerequisites to consider.

Should a Federal or Postal employee file for OWCP benefits first, or in lieu of, Federal Disability Retirement benefits?

At the outset, it is important to understand that OWCP is not a retirement system. Instead, it is a compensatory system set up for Federal and Postal employees who have been injured “on the job”, or in a “job-related” incident (or as a result of an “occupational disease”) in order to rehabilitate and return the injured Federal or Postal employee back to full duty. It is not meant to be a long-term solution; rather, the entire framework is set up in order to temporarily compensate the Federal or Postal employee during the tenure of the rehabilitative period for an eventual return to work.

As such, OWCP is generally meant for the “short-term” and must be “causally related” to the job, and therefore possesses a separate set of criteria to consider.

To file or not to file; in general, such a decision should be made independently, as it does little to impact the filing of a Federal Disability Retirement claim.

Social Security Disability

For all FERS employees (if, indeed, there are any CSRS or CSRS-Offset species left in the Animal Kingdom of Federal Employees) who are considering filing for Federal Disability Retirement benefits, the issue of Social Security Disability is something which must be engaged.

Most medical doctors and specialists who have any familiarity with “disability” issues, are aware of the requirements based upon filing for Social Security Disability benefits. That, in and of itself, is often problematic, precisely because the standard of proof required to become entitled to Social Security Disability benefits is quite different from what is required to prove a Federal Disability Retirement application, and often serves as an impediment when attempting to explain to doctors that there is a difference with a distinction when it comes to FERS Disability Retirement through OPM.

As a result, many doctors are reluctant to support an individual who wants to file for FERS Disability Retirement benefits, because of the ignorance of having any familiarity with the legal criteria concerning eligibility. Clarity of distinction must be made to the treating doctor or specialist who is approached for support: Federal Disability Retirement is NOT the same as Social Security Disability; but, yes, for all FERS Disability Retirement applicants, the minimal formality of filing for SSDI must be accomplished, if only to print out a receipt to show that one has filed.

Garnering support from the doctor

This will be the key to the difference between “having a medical condition” and “proving that one’s medical condition entitles one” to Federal Disability Retirement benefits.

Make no mistake – there is a difference, and one with a real distinction. Think of it this way: Many people in the world walk around with a diagnosed medical condition; but within that universe of individuals, only some of them will be eligible for Federal Disability Retirement benefits through the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, and within that micro-subset are even fewer individuals who will be eligible and entitled to Social Security Disability benefits.

For the Federal and Postal worker, the concern is to create that nexus between “having a medical condition” and proving that one’s medical condition makes one eligible for Federal Disability Retirement benefits through OPM. For this to happen, and for a Federal Disability Retirement application to be a viable case, one’s support must come from a doctor who is willing to lend legitimacy to the entire endeavor.

The future beyond an approval of a Federal Disability Retirement application

Many Federal and Postal workers overlook this aspect of the entire process, if only because the procedural hurdles and obstacles facing one in the mere preparation, formulation and filing of an effective Federal Disability Retirement application is daunting enough, without serious regard for consideration of that which will inevitably come thereafter. But such preliminary thoughts should always be incorporated and seminally considered in changing the course of one’s future and vocation.

A career change is at the dawn of “now” when a Federal or Postal worker is considering filing for Federal Disability Retirement benefits, and the future engagement beyond an expected approval from OPM should be entertained. The law allows for Federal Disability Retirement annuitants to make up to 80% of what one’s former Federal or Postal position currently pays, on top of the 60% annuity for the first year, and 40% every year thereafter, until age 62, at which point the Federal Disability Retirement annuity is recalculated and converted to “regular” retirement.

Thus, two important considerations need to be factored in to the “algorithm” of one’s future planning: Will I be working, and if so, what type of work will I be able to perform while maintaining my Federal Disability Retirement annuity; and secondly, will my income at a second vocation make filing for Social Security Disability benefits a moot point, anyway, because of the extremely low threshold of allowable income under SSDI rules?

Filing for Federal Disability Retirement benefits through the U.S. Office of Personnel Management is a life-changing event, in more ways than one. Few major decisions of any sort are mere one-dimensional episodes. Instead, they take on the personality of trauma and vicissitudes beyond mere change of seasons or whims of thought. It is an alteration of life and livelihood, and touches upon the deepest fears of self-image, self-worth, and uncertainty for future security.

In the end, the key to overcoming fear is by arming oneself with knowledge and planning. Valuable and useful information is always the first key to the screen door; once beyond the mesh of confusion, clarity of the glass sheen remains; and that is for the second door to be opened – where information is distinguished from knowledge, and when accumulation of it leads to effective utilization in preparing, formulating and filing an effective Federal Disability Retirement application through OPM.

Yes, the acknowledgment to oneself that the time has come to file for Federal Disability Retirement benefits is, in and of itself, a traumatic, life-changing event. But in life, as in fairytales we left behind, it is always that which we know we should do, but refuse to, which makes the change into a tragedy, when all it really portended was an adjustment to the dreams we never left behind.

About the Author

Attorney Robert R. McGill specializes in Federal Disability Retirement cases helping Federal and Postal workers secure their OPM Disability Retirement benefits under both FERS and CSRS. For more information about his legal services, visit his Federal Disability Lawyer website.