Federal Disability Retirement: A Primer by Way of a Simplified Explanation of a Complicated Process


This is a complex world. The many categories which intersect with one another, require expertise gleaned from a multifaceted aggregation of knowledge. Yet, most of us can only focus upon becoming the resident expert in a singular focus of competence. The old joke about having the capacity to walk and chew gum at the same time is the ironic recognition that reflects a society’s humor upon an acknowledged truism, but exaggerated for comic effect. And that applies when a person is fully healthy. What happens when a medical condition impacts a person’s ability and capacity to continue in his or her employment?

Federal Disability Retirement is a progressive paradigm of society’s recognition that a medical condition should not necessarily stop a person from remaining productive just because a medical condition impacts the ability to perform a particular kind of job. The fact that it is a Federal compensation program is somewhat surprising to many, precisely because it is a model for encouraging further productivity, rather than discouraging and attempting to limit one’s capacity for future employment. The process of obtaining Federal Disability Retirement benefits can be a long, arduous and complex process. This is because it involves many facets of a bureaucratic procedure and administrative venues of mandated legal requirements. In its inherent complexity, the simplified core of the process in attempting to win an approval from the U.S. Office of Personnel Management involves three key components: the medical condition, the job, and the intersection between the two. In order to arrive at some preliminary understanding of the process, however, it is necessary to understand the greater context, and we can do this by way of contrast, by comparing Federal Disability Retirement to other forms of compensatory programs.

First, one should compare the Federal Disability Retirement annuity with Social Security Disability benefits. For Federal workers who must file for Federal Disability Retirement through the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, and who are under the Federal Employees Retirement System, filing for Social Security Disability is part of the process. For most Federal employees and U.S. Postal Workers, filing for Social Security Disability benefits is merely a formality, inasmuch as most Federal and Postal employees will not be approved for it, but still must file and attach a receipt showing that one has filed. Why must one file for Social Security? Primarily because, if the Federal or Postal employee is approved for Social Security Disability benefits, there is an off-setting, coordination of benefits, where a percentage of Social Security Disability benefits is offset against the Federal Disability Retirement benefit, but where the combination of both will usually net one more. However, in comparison to Social Security Disability, Federal Disability Retirement allows the Federal or Postal worker to earn a greater amount of earned income from a private-sector job, without endangering the Federal Disability Retirement annuity one fought so long and hard to get.

Second, in comparison with Federal Worker’s Compensation benefits, the Federal and Postal worker should consider both the “short-term view” and the “long-term view” of the matter, in performing a comparative, cost-benefits analysis. The short-term view is that Worker’s Compensation pays more than Federal Disability Retirement benefits. That is obviously a good thing. Temporary total disability payments will almost always pay more than what is offered under a Federal Disability Retirement annuity. However, the long-term view should also be taken into account. While Worker’s Compensation may pay more, it prevents the Federal or Postal employee from seeking other kinds of work, and therefore forces the Federal or Postal employee who remains on Federal Worker’s Compensation to be stuck in a stationary position, without ever any ability to seek another line of work or to begin a second career.

Such are the basic comparative components in analyzing the Federal Disability Retirement program. Next, with that greater context in mind, the foundational elements of what is required in order to prepare, formulate, and file for Federal Disability Retirement benefits needs to be understood and discussed. Again, the three basic components that make up an effective Federal Disability Retirement application, must by necessity involve the following: First, the medical condition; next, the job; finally, the interaction between the two.

Understand, first and foremost, that Federal Disability Retirement must have as its lynchpin and foundation, the medical condition itself. Unlike Social Security Disability, however, the Federal or Postal employee does not need to be totally disabled. Furthermore, unlike under the Federal Worker’s Compensation program, causality is never an issue. Federal Disability Retirement is not concerned with how, where, or even why a medical condition occurred; it is merely and primarily focused upon the fact of the medical condition, its severity and extent, and how it impacts one’s capacity and employment ability.

Next, the job itself must be focused upon. Federal Disability Retirement is concerned not with the identified medical condition viewed in a vacuum, but rather, how that medical condition impacts one’s ability to perform all of the essential elements of one’s Federal or Postal position. Thus, if a Federal employee works in a position which can be characterized as cognitive-intensive, then a high distractibility from chronic pain, or psychiatric conditions which impact one’s focus, concentration, and attention to detail, will be essential elements of the Federal position which are intersected by one’s medical condition. Likewise, a Postal Worker in a craft field who must perform repetitive movements of bending, lifting, sorting, pulling, pushing, etc., and who suffers from shoulder, knee, neck, back pain, or other musculoskeletal limitations, then such essential elements of one’s job will be impacted for purposes of qualifying for Federal Disability Retirement benefits. But such neat categories are never the reality of any given case. Cross-overs are always there; and just as a sedentary position may be severely impacted by physical medical conditions, so likewise, a position requiring long hours of physical labor can be severely impacted by cognitive-impacting medical conditions. There is never a single rule in qualifying for Federal Disability Retirement benefits from the U.S. Office of Personnel Management; rather, the truest rule is that one should never be confined by an appearance of rules.

Finally, there is the intersection between the medical condition, and the positional duties one is slotted in. The Reader will probably notice that the bridge between the medical condition and the job has been somewhat discussed already, and that is because, as stated before, Federal Disability Retirement cannot be discussed by virtue of the medical condition in a vacuum; it always encapsulates two interconnecting paradigms involving the medical condition and the essential elements of one’s positional requirements. Thus, theoretically, if Federal Worker X has a job which requires the repetitive use of one’s left forefinger in the performance of one’s position, and that unfortunate digit becomes injured, then Federal Worker X would likely qualify for Federal Disability Retirement benefits. It is never the medical condition alone, but always in its intersecting connection with the essential elements of one’s positional duties.

Such are the primary elements to consider in preparing, formulating and filing for Federal Disability Retirement benefits, filed through the U.S. Office of Personnel Management. The process itself, as with any bureaucratic procedure involving many statutes, regulations and laws, can be a rather disheartening, complex process. But a simplification of the process can be comprehended by first breaking down the aggregate components into their neatly divided, elementary foundations. As with every complicated procedure, the simplicity of the process lies in knowing the separate components before putting the carburetor back under the hood.

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