Disability: Total or Occupational?

There is a difference between total and occupational disability for federal employees as they apply to work requirements benefits.

Many federal workers who consider applying for federal disability retirement are apprehensive about the word “disability.” They think of disability in the context of Social Security Disability, which requires a claimant to be totally disabled.

This is not necessarily the case for federal disability retirement. Occupational and total disability is very different, and it’s important for both federal workers and their doctors to understand the distinction.

Total Disability: Required for Social Security Disability (SSD) or Supplemental Security Income (SSI)

To be considered disabled for Social Security purposes, a disability applicant must be unable to perform any “gainful employment activity.” Generally, this means an individual cannot perform any work that brings in more than a designated dollar amount per month. In 2016, the limit is $1,130 for non-blind, disabled applicants. All Americans who have paid into the Social Security system are eligible for SSD and SSI benefits if they can no longer perform “gainful employment” activity; however, the total disability requirement is very strict and relatively more difficult to prove.

In many SSD and SSI cases, a Vocational Expert (VE) is required to testify on which jobs the applicant can perform with an understanding of their work limitations. A VE has special training and knowledge of the jobs available in the labor market as well as the education and work skills needed.

In regards to federal workers, total disability is certainly sufficient for obtaining federal disability retirement benefits, but it is by no means necessary.

Occupational Disability: Required for FERS/CSRS Disability Retirement

While total disability is described as no longer being able to perform any gainful work activity, occupational disability is described as no longer being able to perform certain job tasks required for their particular occupation.

The Office of Personnel Management (OPM) oversees all federal disability retirement claims, and requires applicants to prove they are occupationally disabled — not totally disabled. The total or occupational disability must be in relation to one’s performance, conduct or attendance.

For example, a career postal employee suffering from a debilitating back injury may no longer be capable of lifting and loading heavy packages, as required for his current position. This would qualify him as occupationally disabled in the area of performance.  It doesn’t matter if he can still work in an office setting or some other modified position; the fact he can no longer successfully fulfill his current job duty qualifies him for federal disability retirement benefits.

Another reason why this is so important for federal employees to understand is that there can be a work life after federal disability retirement. A federal worker who is approved for disability retirement may work in the private sector and is allowed to earn up to 80% of their former salary on top of their disability retirement payments.

Yes, you read that correctly! You may be considered occupationally disabled for your federal job, but if you can work within your medical restrictions, perhaps you can be gainfully employed in the private sector.

About the Author

Bo Harris is the President of Harris Federal Law Firm and is a certified Federal Retirement Consultant (FRC℠). Bo has established Harris Federal as one of the premiere federal employee benefits law firms in the U.S., while assisting 8,000+ federal employees. Contact Harris Federal at (877) 226-2723.