Disability retirement benefits make an enormous difference to anyone.
Federal employees who become medically unable to perform their jobs, may enjoy special disability benefits. While such benefits are somewhat like Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) Benefits and workers’ compensation benefits, eligibility for federal disability retirement is a unique entitlement. What are its basic eligibility requirements?
Federal Employees Retirement System
In 1987, Congress replaced the Civil Service Retirement System (CSRS) with the current program, the Federal Employees Retirement System (FERS). While some current federal employees who began work before 1987 may still fall under CSRS coverage, most federal workers are now covered by FERS. To be eligible for FERS, the employee must have been working in the federal setting for at least 18 months.
Medical Qualifications for Disability Retirement
Generally, to qualify for FERS benefits, a worker must have become unable to perform “useful and efficient service” in his or her current position. This must be by virtue of a physical or mental disease or injury. Moreover, that disability must be expected to continue for at least 12 months beyond the date of filing the application for FERS benefits. Hence FERS is not for short-term disability.
One Need Not Show Total DisabilityThe medical criteria for FERS benefits are not as stringent as those for SSDI benefits. To qualify for SSDI benefits, one must generally prove total disability. To qualify for FERS benefits, one need only show that one is disabled from performing one or more of the essential elements of a particular kind of job.
FERS Disability Need Not Have Been Caused by One’s Work
The requirements for FERS eligibility are not as stringent as those for state workers’ compensation programs. Federal employees who have worked in the private sector may recall that to qualify for most workers’ compensation benefits, the injury or illness must be work-related. As a result, it must arise from and in the course of the employment. FERS disability may be work-related, but it need not be.
Federal Agency Must Attempt Accommodation
In virtually all cases, before a federal employee qualifies for FERS benefits, the employing agency must show it has sought to accommodate the employee’s medical condition or disability in the current job. However, it has been unable to do so. It also must show it cannot reassign the employee to a nearby employment position at the same pay grade.
Time Limits for Filing PERS Application
In most cases, the application for FERS benefits must be filed while the employee is still an employee of the federal government or within one year of the employee’s separation from employment. For employees who are still working (or recently separated from employment), the application is filed with the employing agency. For former employees separated from employment for more than 31 days, the application goes to the Office of Personnel Management (OPM). In either case, the OPM makes an initial determination, based upon the pertinent medical records and other information in the application.
Initial Denials are Relatively Common
As with SSDI applications, it is not uncommon for one’s initial application to be denied. Denied applicants have 30 days to request reconsideration. You may submit additional information, such as medical reports and other indicia of disability at this time. In the event the application receives another denial, the Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB) performs a further review. Generally speaking, an Administrative Law Judge will then decide on your application. Continued denials can push a case into the federal court system.
Coordination of FERS with SSDI
The FERS program requires the disabled employee to apply for SSDI benefits as well. As noted above, eligibility for SSDI benefits is more restrictive than FERS. If the employee receives an SSDI benefits award, it must coordinate with the FERS benefits they receive. While the rules for coordination are somewhat complex, during the first year the employee receives SSDI benefits, that offsets the full amount of those benefits. Hence during that first year, one’s FERS benefits are subject to a reduction by 100 percent of the SSDI benefits. Thereafter, the employee’s FERS benefits are subject to a reduction by 60 percent of the SSDI annual benefits.
FERS Benefits Based Upon Other Factors
Bear in mind that the level of FERS benefits also depends on the age of the employee when he or she qualifies. Also, it depends upon the number of years the employee worked in the federal employment system. While the exact computations can be quite complex, most FERS beneficiaries receive about 60% of their “high–3 average” salary in the first year of benefits and about 40% after that. As many employees know, the computation of a high–3 average ordinarily comes from taking an employee’s highest salaries for three consecutive years and dividing that sum by three. This excludes overtime.
Other Technical Rules May Apply
While FERS rules and regulations are designed with basic fairness in mind, they are complex and can be confusing. Many federal employees—particularly those that have initially applied for and their FERS benefits were denied—find the system to be as frustrating as an obstacle course. Most appreciate the help that can come from a skilled attorney, but not just any attorney. Due to the intricate nature of the federal employment system, most clients determine that they need to retain an attorney who has successfully maneuvered “the system.”
Melville Johnson: MSPB and Federal Employment Attorneys
Melville Johnson is one of America’s premier federal employment practice law firms. For more than a quarter century, we’ve successfully litigated a wide variety of federal cases across the nation. We have helped federal employees and former employees get the FERS benefits they deserve. We have extensive experience in handling matters before the Merit Systems Protection Board. Our attorneys know all areas of employment law that a federal employee may encounter. With any case or claim, we quickly zero in on the essential facts. We apply the law and then work to reach the conclusion you desire. And we use well-reasoned approaches and aggressive advocacy. Once you retain us, we will be there with you at every step of the process. So don’t delay. Contact us at 888.594.0424 or complete the online contact form.