U.S. Postal Service injuries: The Durable Body

Have you ever seen those videos depicting mechanized arms repetitively opening and closing a car door in order to test the durability of an automobile’s structural soundness?  Robots and automation have replaced such testing scenarios; for, in the “old days”, you can imagine a “quality assurance specialist” opening and closing, opening and closing the door, the hood, the trunk, etc., to make sure that it doesn’t fall apart — and in the meantime, doing grave damage to the inspector’s own anatomy because of repetitive stress upon doing the same job over and over again.

Flat sorting machines at USPS distribution centersThe human body has often been marveled at.  If from a religious viewpoint, it is perfection created in the image of a perfect being.  If from an evolutionary standpoint, it is the result of a lengthy elimination of genetic mishaps through trial-and-error consummated by a process where the survival of the “fittest” wins out.  Yet, every functional anatomy — whether made of human flesh, of mechanical apparatus or a combination of both (what was once referred to as “bionic” limbs) — has its limitations, and whether the human body was meant to undergo repetitive usage necessitated by the requirements of employment is a question to be pondered.

U.S. Postal workers are exposed to a unique hazard — that of repetitive stress injuries.  Such injuries or medical conditions are caused by the human anatomy engaging in repeated movements and motions performed over and over again, whether for employment or in daily living activities.  The effects culminating from such activities are often identified as “repetitive stress injuries”, or sometimes as “cumulative trauma disorders”, “repetitive motion disorders” or “overuse syndromes”.  However one terms it, the resultant consequences encapsulate a wide range of medical conditions and injuries which impact muscles, ligaments, tendons, nerves, and the structural integrity of interconnective tissues which make the miracle of the human body work.

U.S. Postal workers are particularly susceptible to such injuries, precisely because they must engage in such repetitive motions and movements in the daily course of their craft.  The result?  Various medical conditions arise, including (but certainly not exhaustively limited to):

Postal workers who suffer from such injuries are often faced with multiple challenges:  As injuries often mount once a single medical condition begins to develop (the known phenomena of, “When it rains, it pours”), and as age begins to play a factor in one’s career (can one make it to age 56 with 30 years of repetitive stress?), can it be proven that such injuries are occupationally-related?  And what about the phenomena of the “last straw that broke the camel’s back”?  You know — you work as a letter carrier for 25 years and have been feeling sore knees for quite some time, but on a bright and sunny day you decide to challenge your teenage son to a pick-up game on the basketball court and twist your knee.  Question:  Was it really that overenthusiastic jump shot that resulted in a jarring crunch to the knee, or the 25 years of walking 10 – 20 miles on concrete surfaces that ended with a bum knee?  Of course, the Emergency Room Report notes that the “individual comes in today with right knee pain; says he was playing basketball with his son when…”.

Was the human body meant for decades of repetitive activities or motions?  Certainly, there are mitigating ways of working that one should be aware of when first a person takes on a career which will require repetitive work.  But, then, when we were 20 or so, who ever thought that we were less than invincible, indestructible, and of an enduring quantity?  The Mail Processing Clerk, the Mail Handler, the Letter Carrier, the Flat Sorter (Automation), the Electronic Technician — in his or her early days, could do the job, come home and jog 5 miles for leisure and relaxation.  Then, into one’s 30s, perhaps the tinge of soreness and hint of fatigue forced you to cut back to less strenuous activities; and by 40 or so, watching a football game was preferable to actively playing the sport, with a compromise that “gardening” was just as healthy and walking to the grocery store was good exercise as well.  Days and weeks go by; and months turn into years.  Throughout, without being fully conscious of the consequences, you have been engaging in uninterrupted repetitions of movements and activities at work which involves extensive overexertion often at the expense of proper posture or adequate rest.  Singular or multiple symptoms begin to appear:  Pain; aching that will not go away; tenderness at various sites; stiffness that cannot be stretched-away; throbbing; tingling; persistent pain; numbness; loss of sleep because of the high distractibility of pain; fatigue that borders on profound fatigue.

You are suffering from Repetitive Stress Injury.

Whether the impact is upon your shoulder, neck, back, fingers, wrists elbows, ankles, feet or some other part of your anatomy, the miracle of the durable body has begun to reveal its structural vulnerabilities.  When that realization comes to light, the distance between what you have accomplished and the goal of retirement becomes a seemingly insurmountable gap.  Filing for Federal Disability Retirement under FERS may be the best option for the Postal worker who can no longer endure the repetition required of a craft employee — or even of Managers, Supervisors and Postmasters.  It is a benefit which must be fought for and proven — that you are no longer able to perform one or more of the essential elements of your positional requirements.  The human body was ultimately never intended for endless repetitive stress, and for the Postal worker who suffers an injury or medical condition resulting from a workplace injury — or even from an off-site injury from a pick-up basketball game ( remember that eligibility for disability retirement, unlike Worker’s Compensation, does not depend upon the medical condition being work-related), consider the benefit of filing for Federal Disability Retirement with the U.S. Office of Personnel Management.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

 

Adding to the 10 Dos and Don’ts in filing for Postal Disability Retirement benefits with OPM

It is always a good idea to review statements made, declarations asserted and advice given in spheres of influence, legal or not, just to ascertain the validity of what was stated in the past.  Then, if “updates” are necessary, or one can “add to” the value of past observations, such modifications may be fruitful and, more importantly, expand the knowledge previously gained.  The 10 dos and don’ts previously annotated in a prior article included:  Do not assume; Do not wait; Do respond affirmatively; Do ask outright of the doctor; Don’t count on bilateral loyally from the U.S. Postal Service; Do not believe everything the Postal Service tells you; Do provide a ‘totality of evidence’ approach in preparing a Federal Disability Retirement application; Do emphasize the credentials of your doctor; Do not act as your own lawyer; Do present your case in a streamlined, professional manner.  While those 10 dos and don’ts are still relevant and apply today, it is always wise to revisit and refresh the underlying rationale in following such dictates of guidance, and to add some more in preparing, formulating and filing an effective Postal Disability Retirement application, to be filed with the U.S. Office of Personnel Management.  Thus, some further Dos and Don’ts:

  1. Do become familiar with the basic criteria of Postal Disability Retirement. Your parents may or may not have emphasized the importance of doing your homework.  Such emphasis, now that you are older and wiser, should be applied when preparing one’s Postal Disability Retirement application for the U.S. Office of Personnel Management.  The basic eligibility criteria, of course, can be easily gleaned from OPM’s website:  for FERS employees, a minimum of 18 months of Federal Service and the existence of a medical condition that prevents the Postal employee from performing one or more of the essential elements of one’s Postal position.  As with all endeavors and administrative engagements, however, there is the initial, somewhat-superficial rules that apply; then, there are more “secondary” and detailed issues to identify and ascertain in gaining further knowledge of the process —  questions about accommodations and reassignment; of resignation as opposed to separation and termination; and whether you can work during the process, to what extent and for how long; and many further questions besides.  Basic familiarity is a given; detailed analysis is a must; complete understanding is recommended in preparing, formulating and filing an effective Postal Disability Retirement application.
  2. Do use the available law to your advantage.  The law can be used both as a sword as well as a shield.  If the former, it is utilized to advance your cause; if the latter, as a defensive mechanism to counter the aggressive parry of one’s opponent.  Preemptively use the law in guiding the U.S. Office of Personnel Management into approvbility Retirement application.  Anticipate the arguments that may arise; if the Postal Service is about to separate you from Federal Service for excessive use of SL or because you have been on extended LWOP, negotiate the terms of the termination in order to have the right to assert the Bruner Presumption.
  3. Do not necessarily believe what the Postal Service tells you.  In the previous formulation of the 10 Dos and Don’ts, the admonition was, “Do not believe everything the Postal Service tells you”.  Here, the slight twist is:  Do not necessarily believe what your agency tells you.  It may well be that the U.S. Postal Service is honest and forthright; that your Human Resource Office will provide you with the correct information, and even that they will “work” with you during this difficult time in your life.  However — and this is the caveat and the care that needs to be taken when relying upon an Agency’s direction and advice — when the Postal Facility begins to suspect that you will no longer remain as part of the “team” in pursuance of the Postal Service’s “mission”, your status as an outcast will be reflected in the selective information given and revealed.  As human nature is inherently one of a herd-mentality, it is best to take the approach of a well-known figure when considering information from a source that may no longer be looking out for your best interests:  trust, but verify.
  4. Do not wait until the last moment.  Again, this is a slight variation from the previous recommendation, which stated simply:  “Do not wait.”  Procrastination makes for unnecessary emergencies, and while medical conditions tend to take up all of the focus and energies needed just to get through a given day, the most effectively formulated Postal Disability Retirement applications are the ones that have been prepared with foresight, care and deliberative intent.  However, as life often interrupts the best-laid plans, so medical conditions have the tendency and effect of delaying the completion of multiple other facets of daily living activities, and so the following admonition is applied:  If you do not file on time, you will be precluded from making any arguments at all; if, on the other hand, you at least file before the deadline, you can always supplement later.
  5. Do be careful in completing the Applicant’s Statement of Disability.  Standard Form 3112A is the core and essence of a Federal Disability Retirement application.  The questions on SF 3112A appear to be simple enough, but the question that most people fail to ask and have answered is:  Are there legal consequences if certain questions fail to be answered in a particular manner?  The simple answer to such a query is:  Yes.  Many people believe that if you just list the major diagnosed medical conditions, gather up a few medical records that show that you have been medically identified to suffer from such conditions, package it all together and ship them over to the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, that somehow the bureaucratic process will recognize the seriousness of it all and grant you your Postal Disability Retirement benefits.  Good luck with that approach.
  6. Do be the gatekeeper of the information conveyed.  It is never a good idea to rely upon the good intentions of others, if only because one’s definition of “good” and that which constitutes “good intentions” can never be presumed.  As the burden of producing evidence sufficient to meet the legal criteria of “preponderance of the evidence” is placed upon the Postal Disability Retirement applicant, so the responsibility of that which is submitted can be determined by the Applicant him/herself, or his/her attorney.  Always review everything before it reaches its final “destination point” — the U.S. Office of Personnel Management.
  7. Do prepare each stage of the process as if it will require the next.  While it is true that each Stage of the Administrative Process called “Federal Disability Retirement” is unique, important and self-sufficient in and of themselves — and while we all hope that there will be no need to go to the “next” stage — nevertheless, a little bit of preemptive foresight is always a good idea.  The First Two Stages of the bureaucratic process (i.e., the Initial Stage of the application and the “Reconsideration” Stage of the process are both before the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, while the “Third Stage” of the process is an administrative appeal before a Judge at the U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board) may not require preemptively extensive legal argumentation, inasmuch as OPM’s “medical specialists” are not lawyers and care little about the governing law.  Nevertheless, making sound legal arguments is often a necessary pre-condition in preparing for the Third Stage of the Administrative process — before an Administrative Judge at the U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board — and it is a good idea to “prepare the groundwork” for that possible eventuality by arguing the major legal precedents during the first two stages of the process in anticipation of the possibility for appearing before the U.S.Merit Systems Protection Board.
  8. Do not unduly focus upon the details of a denial. Each Stage of the Postal Disability Retirement process is independent of the other, to a great extent.  The added “qualifier” — “to a great extent” — is meant to apprise all Postal Disability Retirement applicants, potential or otherwise, as to the practical impact of receiving a denial at the First, Initial Stage of the Process, or at the Second, Reconsideration Stage of the process.  Each stage is viewed de novo — as new, starting over again, etc.  Thus, to try and rebut point-by-point the rationale or reasoning of the First Stage OPM’s “Administrative Specialist” is somewhat of a waste of time, as the person who will be reviewing any newly-submitted evidence at the Second, Reconsideration Stage will not be relying upon the reasons for the denial propounded at the First Stage.  This is not to say that the Applicant shouldn’t consider the general reasons and specific rationales given as to “why” one’s Federal Disability Retirement application was denied at the First Stage — only that a “point-by-point” refutation is often an act of futility.  The same general rule applies to a Second, Reconsideration Denial — for, at that point, it becomes a “game-changer” in that the de novo process will be taken up in a completely different forum:  Before an Administrative Judge at the U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board.
  9. Do calculate time-frames on the “conservative” side.  Yes, yes, it does “say so” — that you have thirty (30) days from the date of the letter in which to respond to an Initial Denial, and 30 days from the date of a Reconsideration Denial to file an appeal with the U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board — or from the date you received the denial.  However, it is always a good idea to take the date of the letter and respond in a timely fashion using that date, instead of the more “flexible” date of when you received the Letter of Denial.  Perhaps it will seem “unfair” that there was such a lengthy delay between the date of the letter and the date you received the letter; however, as life is often full of unfair events, so this one should be viewed with a similarly dispassionate perspective.  As a general rule, that which can be ascertained as an indisputable fact (like the stated date on the denial letter) has the greater basis of reliance than one which can be later disputed (like the date one “received” the denial letter).
  10. Do not turn your responses into a personal vendetta.   Be professional about it.  It is sometimes difficult to provide a Reader’s Digest version of the history of the medical condition and be your own harshest editor, but understand that the central focus of the reviewing “specialist” at the U.S. Office of Personnel Management who will make the decision upon your Postal Disability Retirement application does not have the time, inclination or desire to sift through tangential and irrelevant meanderings in your Applicant’s Statement of Disability as reflected on SF 3112A.  Going on a tirade about how the Postal Service failed to accommodate you is not the issue; what attempted accommodations were provided and how they failed, might be — but only if stated in an objective, dispassionate manner.

Lists which purport to identify X-number of this or that rarely comprise an exhaustive compendium of the things that need to be done, and this list by no means accounts for all of the intricacies involved in preparing, formulating and filing an effective Federal Disability Retirement application, to be submitted ultimately to the U.S. Office of Personnel Management.  Indeed, here’s another “Commandment” that should be followed:  Do not try to be your own lawyer.  Law is a peculiar animal; its technical nature and complexities often challenge the best of us, but more importantly, legal principles tend to have tentacles that reach beyond a simple understanding gleaned from a synopsis discovered on the Internet, whose source has not been ascertained and where validity is questionable.

Postal Disability Retirement is a specialized area of law that cannot easily be condensed into an abbreviated list of 10 dos and don’ts, but these Ten Principles listed herein, in addition to the previous ones discussed in a prior article, may provide some useful “tips” in preparing, formulating and filing an effective Postal Disability Retirement application with the U.S. Office of Personnel Management.  The operative concept here, of course, is encapsulated by the word “effective” — for, why else would you expend your time, effort and resources in applying for a benefit which must be proven by a preponderance of the evidence, unless it has become a necessary contingency leaving little choice in the matter?  Effectiveness is gained not by chance or unplanned circumstances, but by taking a deliberative approach in preparing, formulating and filing based upon knowledge and gained wisdom, and the principles underlying any efficacy of endeavors must always begin by knowledge gleaned from past experiences, or from a lawyer who is experienced in such matters.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

The U.S. Postal Service and Federal Disability Retirement: The National Reassessment Program, the Agency and the Worker

The U.S. Postal Service has, for many years, been a “good employer” for thousands of hard-working Postal employees.  By ascribing the term “good”, of course, one enters into the dangerous territory of different experiences in a wide-range of sectors across the United States, for just as there are “good” and “bad” people, there are good and bad Post Offices, Postmasters, Supervisors, Rural and City Carriers, Maintenance and Electronic Technicians, Clerks, Distribution Clerks, Mail Handlers, etc.  Individuals determine the moral and ethical designation of “good” or “bad”; individuals collectively make up an organization, which is reflective of the type, character and tenor of the individuals within that organization.

Thus, by the conceptual term “good employer”, is merely meant that it has allowed for thousands of hard-working, productive Postal employees to earn a decent wage. “Goodness” of an agency comes about because of good people, and if goodness is in any way determined or defined by the hard work of the majority of the people of any organization, then it is indisputable that the Postal Service, all things considered, is indeed a good agency.

Changes have been in the works.  And they continue to alter the landscape of the U.S. Postal Service.

For many years, when an on-the-job injury occurred, and an OWCP claim was filed, despite the onerous provisions of the Federal Employees Compensation Act (FECA), it allowed for temporary compensation benefits, including wage-loss benefits for total or partial disability, monetary benefits for permanent loss of use of a schedule member, medical benefits, as well as vocational rehabilitation. Yes, FECA is a hassle.  Remember, however, that FECA was never created as a “Retirement System” – but rather, as a means to temporarily compensate the injured worker while attempting to provide for rehabilitation resulting in an eventual return to work.   To that end, even when the injured employee never fully recovered, the Postal Service, in cooperation with OWCP, would attempt to offer various “light duty” or “modified duty” assignments, so that the Postal employee could be retained in a productive capacity.

There is actually nothing wrong with the U.S. Postal Service offering ‘light duty’ or ‘modified assignments’ over the years.  Now, however, with the onerous sweep of the National Reassessment Program (NRP) which is effectively telling all Postal Workers who are not “fully productive” that there are no more “light duty” assignments remaining; no longer can you remain in a “modified duty” position.  You are sent home with a terse explanation that there is no work for you, and you may file for OWCP benefits.  However, only a fool would believe that OWCP benefits will last forever.

What is the choice?  What alternatives are left?  Because Federal Disability Retirement benefits will often take 6 – 8 months to apply for and get approved, it is a good idea to start the process as early as possible.  You may stay on OWCP for as long as you can, or for the length of time FECA allows you to receive such benefits, but there will be a day, sooner than later, when such benefits will be cut off – either through

“vocational rehabilitation” (Translation:  find you a job, any job, that pays at or near what your Postal job paid, and be able to argue that you are no longer entitled to OWCP benefits), referral to an “Independent Second Opinion Doctor” who may look at you (or perhaps not even look at you) and spend five minutes before declaring that you have no residual symptoms and you should be able to return to full duty (Translation:  no more OWCP benefits, but we all know you can’t go back to carrying mail or performing the heavy lifting, bending, pushing, reaching grasping, etc.).

Would you qualify for Federal Disability Retirement benefits under FERS or CSRS?  Assume the following hypothetical:  X suffers from bilateral carpal tunnel syndrome, or perhaps from chronic back pain, failed back syndrome, or chronic pain throughout one’s musculature; it originated from an OTJ injury, accepted by OWCP, and for a decade X worked in a modified light duty job.  The job is no longer in existence (by the way, the fact that such a job is now “no longer in existence” is precisely what attorneys who specialize in Federal Disability Retirement benefits have been arguing for years – that a ’modified light duty’ does NOT constitute an accommodation under the law, precisely because it was merely a temporary position with an ad hoc set of duties, and nothing more).  Can you qualify for Federal Disability Retirement benefits?

Hint:  Note what the Administrative Judges at the U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board stated in the case of Selby v. OPM, Docket #SF-844E-05-0118-I-1, decided June 9, 2006:  “The fact that he was receiving two hours of workers compensation a day also buttresses his claim that his injuries prevented him from performing many of the critical elements of his position.”  In other words, any granting of receipt of OWCP benefits (in this particular case, it was compensation for 2 hours per day, but the argument can be extended to include any amount of compensation) only reinforces and supports (“buttresses”) the argument by a Postal Worker that he or she could not perform the full panoply of the essential elements of one’s job.  Being able to work the full 8 hours in the full description of one’s craft job, is what is required.  Otherwise, it is likely that you qualify for Federal Disability Retirement benefits under FERS or CSRS.

The National Reassessment Program is merely reflective of a wider economic trend; technological changes have altered the landscape of labor-intensive jobs; automation is the focal emphasis in every agency and department; budgetary considerations result in the “bottom-line” approach to personnel decisions.  Where does it all lead to, and what does it all mean for the Postal Worker?  If you believe that, after 20 years of faithful service, after having shown that you are a “good” employee, that such faithful loyalty will be returned “in kind”, while your naiveté may be commendable, your may be sorely disappointed in the manner in which the Agency will treat you.  If the NRP impacts you, you need to make some pragmatic decisions, and one of them may well be to file for Federal Disability Retirement benefits under FERS or CSRS.

Do you have a medical condition or disability which would qualify?  Often, the question is asked whether or not Psychiatric conditions are more difficult to qualify under the criteria of Federal Disability Retirement.  The spectrum of psychiatric conditions, from Major Depression, Anxiety, panic attacks, Asperger’s Syndrome, Bipolar Disorder, ADHD, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, etc., are all medical conditions which, if they prevent you from performing one or more of the essential elements of your job, would qualify you for a Federal Disability Retirement annuity.  Psychiatric cases are no more difficult these days than “physical” disabilities.

In this day and age, it is unfortunate but true, that there has arisen a contentious relationship – between “the Agency” and “the Postal Worker”.  Both are supposed to constitute a single organic entity, unified in purpose; but where the Agency has initiated a deliberate program to “weed out” those Postal Workers – regardless of the years of faithful service – who, because of an ongoing medical condition, are considered to be less than “fully productive”, then it is time for the Postal Worker, whether the Clerk, the Postmaster, the EAS Supervisor, the Maintenance Technician, the Electronic Technician, the Rural Letter Carrier, the City Letter Carrier, or the multitude of countless other important jobs performed at the U.S. Postal Service – time to tap into a benefit which has always been there, but has often been unused, underused or ignored:  Federal Disability Retirement benefits under FERS or CSRS.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

Why Is the Postal Worker Being Removed From Service?

While a compromise position on certain issues in the U.S. Postal Service Disability Retirement for FERS & CSRS may be the best that one may hope for, obviously, clarity over question is the better course to have.  Thus, for instance, in a removal action, where a Postal employee is being removed for his or her “excessive absences,” it is best to have the proposed removal and the decision of removal to reference one or more medical conditions, or at least some acknowledgment by the Postal Service, that would explicate — implicitly or otherwise — that the underlying basis for the “excessive absences” were as a result of the medical condition.  There are cases which clearly state that where excessive absences are referenced by medical conditions, the Bruner Presumption would apply in a Federal Disability Retirement case.

Now, in those cases where the removal action merely removes a Postal employee for “excessive absences”, there are other methods which may win over an Administrative Judge to apply the Bruner Presumption.  Such “other methods” may include emails or correspondence, at or near the time of the removal action, which appears to put the Agency on notice about specific medical conditions, including attachments of doctor’s reports, medical notations, etc.  Such concurrent documentation can convince an Administrative Judge that, indeed, the question as to whether the “excessive absences” were as a result of a medical condition, and whether management was aware of such an underlying basis, is clarified by documents which provide a proper context within the reasonable time-frame of the issuance of the proposal to remove and the decision to remove.  It is always better, of course, to have clarity over a question, but sometimes the question can be clarified with additional and concurrent documentation.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire