Federal Disability Retirement: A Primer for the Federal and Postal Worker

Nancy B. Alston

Federal Disability Retirement benefits are available for all Federal and Postal Workers who have a minimum number of years of Federal Service. For the Federal Worker or the Postal Employee who is under the “older” system of Federal Service (under what is known as the Civil Service Retirement System), the minimum requirement of Federal Service needed to qualify for Federal Disability Retirement benefits is 5 years. Of course, anybody and everybody who is under the Civil Service Retirement System, will already have the minimum number of needed years, precisely because such Federal and Postal workers would have had to enter the Federal Service at least by 1986. For those under the “newer” system of Federal Employment, known as the Federal Employees Retirement System, qualifying for Federal Disability Retirement benefits requires a minimum of 18 months of Federal Service.

Federal Disability Retirement benefits cannot be negotiated. It does not matter whether or not a particular injury or the medical condition is more severe than another. Under Federal Disability Retirement law, one does not determine the amount or extent of compensatory relief based upon the severity of the injury of the medical condition. Further, the medical condition does not have to be work-related, or caused by an occupational hazard, or anything even remotely having to do with one’s job or occupation. Indeed, the injury or accident can occur during one’s vacation, at home one evening, or on a cruise ship in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.

The requirements to qualify for Federal Disability Retirement are complex and complicated. While it is not a requirement that the Federal or Postal employee must necessarily have a lawyer to handle one’s Federal Disability Retirement application, it is strongly encourage that one should be duly represented by a person who is knowledgeable about the entire administrative process. For, ultimately, obtaining Federal Disability Retirement benefits is an investment in one’s future. While it initially pays 60% of what one’s former (Federal or Postal) position’s average of the highest three consecutive years of service for the first year of compensation, then 40% of the average of one’s highest three consecutive years every year thereafter (until age 62, at which point the annuity is recalculated based upon the total number of years of Federal Service, including the time that the Federal or Postal employee spent receiving a Federal Disability Retirement annuity), there are clear economic advantages and differences from other compensatory programs.

First, Federal Disability Retirement is distinguishable from Social Security Disability benefits, in that the standard to qualify is different, and by any objective standard, easier to meet. Thus, while Social Security Disability laws require that a person no longer be able to engage in what is known as “substantial gainful activity”, Federal Disability Retirement merely mandates that a person show that he or she can no longer perform one or more of the essential elements of one’s particular kind of job. Simply put, Social Security has a legal standard of showing that one is essentially “totally disabled” (that is, one cannot work in any full-time employment in any capacity), while Federal Disability Retirement only requires that the disability prevents one from performing one or more of the essential elements of one’s particular kind of Federal or Postal job.

Second, Federal Disability Retirement is different from Federal Worker’s Compensation benefits, in that the former is a retirement system, while the latter is a means to trying to get the injured or medically disabled Federal or Postal Worker to recuperate to a point where he or she can return to his or her Federal or Postal job. Federal Worker’s Compensation, which is administered through the Office of Workers’ Compensation Programs under the Federal Employees’ Compensation Act, within the purview of the Department of Labor, is a system of compensation designed to provide medical care, temporary disability payments, and through vocational rehabilitation programs and close governmental monitoring, to assist the Federal or Postal Worker through his or her period of injury in order to return the Federal or Postal Worker back to his original job or position. By contrast, when a Federal or Postal Worker becomes qualified to receive Federal Disability Retirement benefits, that Federal or Postal Worker becomes separated from Federal Service and becomes “retired”. It is never intended that the Federal or Postal Worker who is granted Federal Disability Retirement benefits will be expected to recover sufficiently to return to his or her former Federal or Postal job.

Third, while a Federal or Postal Worker who is receiving Social Security Disability benefits is severely limited in his or her ability to earn any income on top of the Social Security Disability benefits; and while a Federal or Postal employee who is receiving temporary total disability compensation from the Worker’s Compensation Program is precluded from working at another job (with some exceptions to the rule); by contrast, a person who receives Federal Disability Retirement benefits can go out into the private sector and find another job, and make up to 80% of what one’s former Federal position currently pays, on top of the money received from being qualified for Federal Disability Retirement benefits. This is because the Federal Disability Retirement program is what is considered a “progressive paradigm”, in that it encourages the disabled Federal or Postal Worker who is receiving Federal Disability Retirement benefits to remain productive in the work force, and to continue to participate in the engine of the American economy by working, paying Federal and State taxes, FICA, etc.

Ultimately, each Federal and Postal Worker who becomes injured or otherwise disabled, must evaluate each Federal compensation program, and decide which program fits the particular and unique circumstances of one’s case. It is a blessing that there are options to consider, and to tailor one’s particular circumstances to the requirements of each program. In doing so, it is important to understand the differences and distinctions between the various programs available to the injured or otherwise disabled Federal or Postal employee. As knowledge is the power to decide, so understanding the differences between Federal Disability Retirement, Social Security Disability, and the Worker’s Compensation Program, is a valuable body of knowledge which should be studied, accessed and reviewed. Only through knowledge can one make a wise choice; and when it comes to making a wise choice for one’s future, understanding the distinctions between the various programs may make all the difference in the world.

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