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

 

FERS & CSRS Disability Retirement for the U.S. Postal Service Employee – The Needed Proof

Postal employees often feel that they are second-class citizens – both in terms of their status and stature as a “Federal employee” who is under either the Federal Employees Retirement System (FERS) or (for those lucky ones who are quickly diminishing in numbers but who were able to enter the Federal workforce prior to the 1986 transition) under the Civil Service Retirement System (CSRS); and in terms of pay scales and discussions in Congress related to bloated budgets, inability to become profitable, etc.

For Postal employees who are considering filing for Federal Disability Retirement, either under FERS or CSRS, the question is often queried as to whether the U.S. Office of Personnel Management treats Postal employees differently than non-Postal, Federal employees.   Whether there is any empirical evidence of discriminatory intent on the part of OPM against Postal employees who file for Federal Disability Retirement benefits, is essentially a non-starter.  For, in the end, each case must be decided on the unique quality and extent of the medical documentation compiled.   Further, one cannot compare and contrast differentiated groups lumped by “Postal” as opposed to “non-Postal”, precisely because the uniqueness of each Federal Disability Retirement case is characterized by the medical condition itself; the type of job and positional duties undertaken by individual X who suffers from the medical condition; and the extent, severity and chronicity of the medical conditions in relation to the duties.

With literally hundreds of Federal agencies, and thousands and tens of thousands of differing types of jobs, one cannot aggregate a generic “Postal Worker” and compare it to a compounded composite of “other Federal workers”.  Thus, it is a wrong question to ask.  Instead, the proper question to ask would be:  Given a Postal Worker who is in craft-X, who suffers from medical condition-Y, is there a greater incidence of denials from the U.S. Office of Personnel Management of Postal Workers who file for Federal Disability Retirement benefits, and if there is a greater proportional aggregate of denials as compared to the total number of denials, is there a valid reason for such disproportionate treatment?

In other words, it would be – on its face – incomparably unfair to compare an IT Specialist with the Department of the Navy, who suffers from severe Major Depression and anxiety, to a City Letter Carrier who suffers from status-post cervical discectomy and fusion, precisely because of the type of medical condition involved, and the positional requirements of both.  Further, are there inherent factors within the U.S. Postal Service which can account for any disparate treatment (if we proceed on the assumption that there even exists such differentiation of reviewing and deciding Federal Disability Retirement applications filed by Postal Workers, as opposed to non-Postal, Federal employees)?   The answer is, Yes.

The Postal Service has for years been identified with the notoriety of refusing to accommodate their workers.  Whether in association with OWCP and the Department of Labor, where workers are sent to “second opinion” doctors and “referee” medical facilities in an effort to get people off of the rolls of OWCP and back to full duty; or in conjunction with the National Reassessment Program where an across-the-board infrastructural policy was implemented stating that no accommodations were available for those craft employees who could no longer perform all of the essential functions of one’s job, and that no medical restrictions or limitations would be henceforth honored – a maneuver meant to get rid of all Postal employees who were not fully functional in their jobs – the approach of the U.S. Postal Service in attempting to regain a competitive edge was to try and get rid of anyone and everyone who suffered from a medical condition such that the medical condition prevented the employee from performing all of the essential elements of one’s job.  One might think, upon first considering that approach, that such a maneuver by the U.S. Postal Service would increase the chances for getting a Federal Disability Retirement application approved – for, by conceding that the injured craft employee cannot perform any jobs at the U.S. Postal Service, the assumption would be that such a concession would be evidence for the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, as well as the Federal Disability Retirement applicant, that one is qualified because of the self-admission by the Postal Service, for Federal Disability Retirement benefits.

The problem is twofold:  First, the U.S. Office of Personnel Management is a separate agency from the U.S. Postal Service, and applies a legal criteria which gives scant attention to what the Postal Service thinks, does, or acts upon; and Second, evidence of what the U.S. Postal Service decides – while of somewhat dubious impact and persuasive authority – is ultimately not what makes a Federal Disability Retirement applicant eligible for Federal Disability Retirement benefits.

Indeed, look, for example, beginning with some older precedential cases such as Wilkey-Marzin v. OPM, 82 M.S.P.R. 200 (1999) – where  the Merit Systems Protection Board found that in order to determine a disability retirement in favor of an appellant,  there must be a showing beyond uncorroborated subjective evidence, and provide a “reasoned explanation” of the origins of the disabilities, and how it is disabling with respect to one’s specific duties.  In providing some guiding principles, the Board noted that the Judge should consider the following evidence: (1) objective clinical findings; (2) diagnoses and medical opinions; (3) subjective evidence of pain and disability; (4) evidence relating to the effect of the applicant’s condition on his ability to perform in the grade or class of position last occupied (see also Dunn v. Office of Personnel Management, 60 M.S.P.R. 426, 432 (1994) ).  Note that nowhere in the four (4) guiding principles is there an indication that what the agency does or doesn’t do, should be of primary consideration.  This is not to say that the issue of accommodations will not be relevant; and, certainly, one can argue that an NRP-based decision of refusing any work, or the dreaded “DRAC” (the so-called District Reasonable Accommodation Committee) determination of “no work available”, cannot be effectively used; but the primary focus in a Federal Disability Retirement case, from the viewpoint of the U.S. Postal Worker, should be to prove one’s case based upon the medical documentation, and not rely upon anything which the Postal Services does or doesn’t do.

In the end, if there has been an increase in the number of disability retirement applications, in proportional numbers as compared between “Postal Workers” and any other single Federal Agency of the U.S. Government, it may be because of such unreasonable and uncompromising positions taken under the NRP, the DRAC decisions or in conjunction with OWCP claims.  For, when a determination is made that an agency (in this case, the U.S. Postal Service) will refuse to in good faith attempt to accommodate injured employees, such an intransigent policy will quite obviously increase the numbers of applications to obtain Federal Disability Retirement benefits.  But reliance upon what the agency does, without solid medical evidence to prove, by a preponderance of the evidence, that the Postal Worker is eligible and entitled to Federal Disability Retirement benefits, is to run a fool’s errand.  Postal Workers have had to face multiple obstacles over the years, both in economic downsizing and frozen pay structures; and the decision to shed its workers from within because of medical conditions is merely an indication of the heart and soul of the Postal Service – not necessarily any evidence which would qualify the Postal Worker for Federal Disability Retirement benefits.  For that, one must affirmatively go out and compile one’s case, and use such evidence of the NRP as merely a secondary, peripheral

The Postal Worker Today: Choices, FERS & CSRS Disability Retirement, and Protecting one’s Future

     Hypothetical:  A U.S. Postal Worker has been working for the past 7 years in a modified position.  Seven years ago, he injured himself on the job; he filed for OWCP benefits, had surgery, and returned some months later in a position within the same Craft, but modified to fit his medical restrictions and limitations.  By all accounts, he has been a productive worker.   Without warning, one day the Postal Worker is called into the office, interviewed, reassured, then escorted from the facility and informed that there is no longer any work for him to do, and that, by the way, “You can file for Worker’s Comp.” 

     Can such a hypothetical occur?

     The reality is that, under the National Reassessment Program (NRP), such a hypothetical is not a fictional instance of someone’s imaginative fantasy; rather, it is a reality which is occurring today. 

     In the world of the U.S. Postal Service and the injured worker who has one or more medical conditions such that he or she has restrictions or limitations which prevent one from performing the full panoply of the duties as outlined in the Position Description, there is no such thing as “bilateral loyalty”.  Bilateral loyalty goes like this:  You give your life to the organization, and the organization will be loyal to you.  The reality is the opposite:  You give your life to the organization, and if you can’t do the full duties of your bid job, you will no longer have a job with us.  The latter is termed, “unilateral loyalty” (i.e., kill yourself for our sake, and we’ll get rid of you if we find that you cannot perform the full duties of your position).

     Whether you are a City Letter Carrier, a Rural Carrier, a Mail Handler, Mail Processing Clerk, Distribution Clerk, Sales & Service Associate, Supervisor of a large, small, or mid-sized facility, or even a Postmaster – if you cannot perform the full duties of your position, your are in danger of being “downsized” (i.e., a euphemism for being terminated, or otherwise denied work).

     Are there solutions to the hypothetical-turned-reality in the world of layoffs, and in light of the National Reassessment Program?  There are multiple problems which continue to arise in the scenario as described above:  OWCP is not a retirement system, and their rolls are being scrutinized with greater regularity, and the eligibility standards appear to be tightening ever more.  Can one file for unemployment benefits even though the Postal Worker is still officially on “the rolls” of the U.S. Postal Service?  Will the Postal Service separate you from service, or will they wait for a year, keeping you on LWOP?  And how about Health Insurance benefits – will the Postal Service continue to maintain the premiums so that you will not lose your Health Insurance benefits?

     In the end, each Postal Worker – in whatever Craft or position one is in – must make decisions which are financially beneficial to the self-interest of the individual.  The term “self-interest” is not meant to be used as a pejorative or negative term – for, that is precisely how the U.S. Postal Service views the entire matter from their perspective – from the organizational self-interest.

     Thus, whether an individual Postal Worker, in any given Craft, suffers from a medical condition or disability – whether psychiatric or physical – he or she must protect and secure one’s financial future.  Filing for Federal Disability Retirement under FERS or CSRS is a viable option which allows for the Postal Worker to retire, receive a monthly annuity, retain the Health Insurance benefits from the Federal System, and go on to find other employment and be allowed to earn up to 80% of what the former Postal Job currently pays.  Remember – OWCP is not a retirement system.  As such, while it is a temporary means of being compensated, it will not last forever.  Further, remember that an individual under FERS or CSRS may concurrently file for OWCP benefits and get a Federal Disability Retirement approved, and continue to remain on OWCP until such time that one’s OWCP benefits are cut off or otherwise terminated.  If you already have the FERS or CSRS disability retirement benefits approved, you can “activate” such benefits once your OWCP benefits are terminated.  This is an important point to consider, because it can often take 6 – 8 months, or more, to get a Federal Disability Retirement application under FERS or CSRS approved.