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

 

The Postal Worker and Federal Disability Retirement Today: Longer Hours, More Repetitive Strain, and Less Loyalty from Above

    Animals are by nature suspicious of strangers; it is only the human who, by a smile and a kind word, will embrace a stranger.  And, even if he is stabbed in the back, more often than not, he will attribute the pain to an accidental and excusable act of negligence; and so we are left with a gullible population of saints – or fools, depending upon one’s viewpoint. 

                                    — from, A Human Perspective

U.S. Postal employees have the most difficult of jobs:  the repetitive nature of the craft duties; the constant bending and lifting, placing an extraordinary strain upon the knees, neck and back; turning and twisting; casing of mail; pushing, pulling; performing maintenance; climbing ladders; entering and exiting a vehicle; walking and standing – the full gamut of such strain upon the musculoskeletal, joints and musculature; not even referring to the mental and emotional strains which are placed by time pressures, working cooperatively with coworkers; responding professionally to supervisors, unreasonable postmasters, irrational customers and all throughout, processing and delivering thousands upon tens of thousands of pieces of mail on a daily basis.

Yes, there is the specific compensation program – under the Federal Employees’ Compensation Act (FECA), administered through the Department of Labor (DOL), Office of Workers’ Compensation Programs (OWCP) – which is structured and set up precisely to address the injuries which are incurred as a result of such occupational-related medical conditions, whether directly (as in an injury occurring during the course of one’s day on the job) or as a hazard inherently related to the occupation itself (which should, theoretically, encapsulate such repetitive-type injuries, related to overuse and chronic medical conditions resulting from the combination of time, repetition and duration).   But more often than not, doctors are unable to specifically relate a particular medical condition to one’s occupation – arthritis does not, in all instances and for everyone, necessarily occur in people who engage in arduous repetitive tasks; Patellofemoral Syndrome does not always and in all cases manifest itself for Letter Carriers, Mail Handlers, etc.; and multiple other types of progressively debilitating medical conditions occur in the general population at large – just not in exponentially explosive multiples of occurrences which might lead one to conclude a causally-related factor.  But without the causality factor proven, what is the avenue remaining for a Postal Worker who can no longer perform one or more of the essential elements of his or her job?

The fact is that the Postal Worker today must work longer, harder, and under greater time constraints, supervision and oversight, with constant and incessant harassment from management, coworkers and customers, than anytime in the past.  The pay scale for Postal workers continues to lag behind and deepen, while the overuse and repetitive nature of the work only increases.  While newer mail processing machines are supposed to make way for greater efficiency, the muscles, joints, bones and spinal column of the Postal Worker must endure the identical strains and pressures, except at higher speeds, greater volume, and with added stress.

In a society which has seen the exponential explosion of psychiatric disabilities, including Major Depression, Anxiety, panic attacks, paranoia, schizophrenia, Bipolar disorder, and a myriad of attendant symptomatolgoies, the high pressure, high technology world without conducive interpersonal interaction and coordination between management, mid-level supervisors and the craft employees, only results in the greater devastation of the physical and psychiatric condition of today’s Postal Worker.

Federal Disability Retirement benefits, whether under FERS or CSRS, is a disability annuity which exists for the Postal employee, precisely because the particular job of the Postal Employee is one which is susceptible to a medical condition or disability.   Of course, OWCP/DOL is a compensation program which is there for the Postal employee, also, but the whole point under FECA is to try and return the injured employee back to his or her job.  But in recent years, several factors have interceded to make the Worker’s Compensation benefit an irrelevancy, if not a cruel irony played upon the Postal Worker by the gods of fate:  under the National Reassessment Program (NRP), the U.S. Postal Service no longer wants the rehabilitated Postal Worker to come back, and further, the Department of labor doesn’t want to have to keep paying the injured Postal Worker for injuries which are supposedly preventing the Postal Worker from performing all of the essential elements of his or her job.

The process of filing for, and retaining the benefits of, Federal Worker’s Compensation benefits, is one replete with constant battles with the Department of Labor.   A single refusal to do what OWCP mandates the Postal Worker to do can result in a termination of benefits.  The Postal Worker who is on the OWCP rolls is in a state of perpetual limbo – for, while the benefit itself pays a fairly decent rate (75% for those with dependents; 66 2/3% for those without) and is not taxed, one cannot work at another job while receiving such benefits.   And then there is the danger of prosecution for defrauding the Federal Government – backed by numerous cases in which hundreds of hours of videotaping edited down to a couple of minutes, showing a person performing some kind of physical task which is medically restricted.  When faced with the threat of considerable jail time, a plea bargain involving loss of benefits, forfeiture of future claims, the high cost of hiring a defense attorney, etc., is the normal course of events for the Postal Worker.

This is not only a tough job, but an unsympathetic world.  Federal Disability Retirement benefits from the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, whether under FERS or CSRS, is always an option for the Postal employee.  While the National Reassessment Program continues to send people home by asserting an “unavailability of work based upon a thorough review of the medical condition and the inability of the U.S. Postal Service to accommodate such medical conditions,” the attempt to throw all Postal Workers who are not able to perform 100% of the essential elements of the position onto the OWCP rolls – while it may be an effective way for the U.S. Postal Service to shed its payroll of all injured employees – is not a road to the future for the Craft Employee.

Federal Disability Retirement allows the Postal Worker two great benefits which OWCP will not offer:  A.  Flexibility to engage in another occupation while receiving a disability retirement annuity, and B.  An ability to build for the future.  Yes, OWCP benefits pays more.  Yes, OWCP benefits are non-taxable.  But if the Postal Worker of today is thinking about building a future for tomorrow, the world of limbo, of perpetual fear of someone watching (or videotaping) you; and being fearful of having some second or third opinion doctor suddenly determine that you are perfectly fit to return to full duty, is simply not in the best interests for the long term.

A Federal Disability Retirement annuity will pay 60% of the average of one’s highest three consecutive years of service for the first year, then 40% every year thereafter, until age 62.  During the time that one is receiving a Federal Disability Retirement annuity, the Postal Worker can go out and make up to 80% of what one’s former position currently pays.  Such flexibility is a foundation for a future.  Moreover, it will allow for the needed period of rehabilitative convalescence, while considering alternative options for the future.

OWCP, the Postal Service and the National Reassessment Program

For many years, being on Worker’s Comp when injured while working for the Postal Service, worked fairly well. The Postal Service, in conjunction with, and in coordination, would offer an acceptable “light duty position”, delineating the physical restrictions and medical limitations based upon the treating doctor’s clinical assessment, or in accordance with the OWCP-appointed doctor. The Postal employee would then work in that “modified position”, and so long as the Postal Supervisor or Postmaster was reasonable (which was not and is not always the case), the coordinated efforts between OWCP, the U.S. Postal Service and the Postal employee would result in years of “quiet truce”, with the tug and pull occurring in some of the details of what “intermittent” means, or whether “2 hours of standing” meant two hours continuously, or something else – and multiple other issues to be fought for, against, and somehow resolved.

The rules of the game, however, have radically changed with the aggressive National Reassessment Program, instituted in the last few years in incremental stages, nationwide. Now, people are summarily sent home and told that “no work is available”. Postal Workers are systematically told that the previously-designated modified positions are no longer available — that a worker must be fully able to perform all of the essential elements of his or her job. This last point, of course, is what I have been arguing for many, many years — that the so-called “modified job” was and is not a permanent position, and is therefore not a legal accommodation under the laws governing Federal Disability Retirement for FERS & CSRS employees.  After so many years of having the Post Office and the Office of Personnel Management argue that such a “modified job” is an accommodation, it is good to see that the truth has finally come out.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire