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 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

The Support of the Postal Service to Its Disabled Employees

Sometimes, the question comes up as to whether or not it is important to have the blessing or support of the USPS, when filing for Federal Disability Retirement benefits under FERS or CSRS.

My answer to such a question is fairly uniform and redundant:  this is a medical disability retirement; it is unwise to proceed to apply for Federal Disability Retirement benefits on the assumption that your Supervisor or Management will be supportive, for there is no guarantee as to what “supportive” means (they may have a completely different understanding or definition of the concept than you do — something which you probably learned over many years of working in the US Postal Service), and further, the primary focus from the perspective of the Office of Personnel Management, is upon the medical evidence presented and how the medical condition impacts one or more of the essential elements of your job.

The Supervisor’s Statement should be minimized in importance and relevance, as much as possible, by ensuring that the rest of the disability retirement application is “excellent”.  By doing this, you neutralize any undue dependence upon your supervisor’s alleged “support” of your application.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire