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8 Things Federal Employees Must Know About FERS Disability

— March 24, 2021

Employees who get fired may still receive FERS disability if they can show that they qualified for it. Most importantly, they must show that their disability prevented them from useful and efficient service in their position.

Federal employees enjoy a robust set of rights concerning their employment. But perhaps most importantly, federal employees are eligible for several types of retirement and disability benefits. Specifically, federal employees can receive retirement benefits through the Federal Employee Retirement System (FERS).

If you are unable to work because of a disability, FERS disability retirement may be an option. Here are 8 things federal employees should know about FERS disability.

What is FERS Disability?

Generally speaking, FERS is a retirement benefits program administered by the federal Office of Personnel Management (OPM). In the late 1980s, FERS replaced the Civil Service Retirement Act (CSRA) as the main benefit option for federal employees. As a result, FERS covers employees working for the government since January 1, 1987, while the CSRA covers employees who started their service before that date.

Disability and retirement benefits under FERS vest after five years of service. However, monthly or yearly payments (called annuities) won’t begin until an employee reaches a “minimum retirement age” (MRA). An employee’s MRA depends on when they started working for the government and the length of their service.

“Disability” is a specific kind of FERS retirement, available to employees who are unable to provide useful and efficient service in their current position because of a disease or disability.

1. You Must Have at Least 18 Months of Service to Qualify for FERS Disability

There are several conditions you must meet to qualify for FERS disability retirement:

  • At least 18 months of Federal civilian service;
  • You suffered a disability during your employment that prevents you from providing useful and efficient service;
  • The disability will last for a year or more;
  • Your agency considered you for a different position at the same grade or pay level;
  • Your agency is unable to accommodate your condition; and
  • You applied for social security benefits.

Notice that while retirement benefits from the basic FERS benefit plan only vest after five years, disability benefits vest after just 18 months.

This shorter timeline is helpful for employees who become disabled and unable to work shortly after beginning their service. Keep in mind, however, that even if you have 18 months of service, you will qualify only if you meet the other eligibility requirements as well.

2. You Must Apply for FERS Disability Within One Year of Leaving Your Job

In addition to the requirements above, federal employees have a time limit on when they can file for FERS disability. Ideally, you should apply for FERS disability before leaving your job. If that isn’t possible, however, you have one year after you leave to do so. As long as the OPM or your agency receives your application within this time period, you will meet this requirement.

3. You Still Need to Apply for FERS Disability Even if You Already Receive Social Security Disability Benefits

Social security disability insurance (SSDI) provides benefits to employees the Social Security Administration (SSA) considers “severely disabled.” The SSA determines disability based on several factors, including whether

  • You are working when you apply;
  • Your condition significantly limits your ability to do basic work-related activities;
  • Your condition is on the list of “disabling conditions”;
  • You can do the work you did previously; and
  • You can do other kinds of work.

Federal employees who qualify for SSDI generally also meet the requirements for FERS disability. However, approval for Social Security benefits does not automatically give you FERS benefits; you still have to apply for disability benefits.

4. You Can’t Receive Benefits Under FERS and the Office of Workers’ Compensation at the Same Time

The Office of Workers’ Compensation Programs (OWCP) also offers benefits to federal employees injured on the job. These benefits include medical care, wage loss replacement, and assistance returning to work.

Although you may try to apply for benefits under both FERS disability and the OWCP, you can choose only one at a time. If you decide to receive OWCP benefits, then any FERS disability benefits you are receiving will stop. These payments may resume when you no longer receive payments from OWCP.

5. Don’t Assume That Your Doctor Will Help You with Your Application

A big part of your FERS disability application is your medical records. Even if your case seems like a guaranteed outcome, it may not be. As a result, having strong medical evidence to support your application is very important.

When you approach your doctor about your application, don’t assume they will be able to help you with all the paperwork you need. Doctors are busy too, and even if you’ve seen the same one for 10 or 20 years, they may be limited in their ability to help you.

6. If the OPM Approves You for FERS Disability, You May Need to Pay for Periodic Medical Exams

After the OPM approves your disability retirement benefits, it may require you to undergo periodic medical exams. The OPM requires these exams on a case-by-case basis, depending on the nature of your medical condition. If this is the case, you will be responsible for paying for these medical exams.

Pennsylvania Doctor Accused of Overprescribing Subsys
Photo by Foto Garage on Unsplash

Completing these exams and keeping your medical information up to date with the OPM is a requirement for continued benefits.

7. If Your Benefits are Denied, You Can Appeal the Decision within 30 Days

If the OPM denies your benefits, you have the chance to submit additional information. This is your opportunity to provide more evidence supporting your disability claim. In general, you will have 30 days from the date the OPM denies your claim. In some cases, you may be able to ask for 30 extra days to gather more evidence.

If the OPM denies your appeal (also called a request for reconsideration), the Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB) will hear your case. There, an administrative law judge will review the evidence and issue a decision.

What Is the Merit Systems Protection Board?

The MSPB oversees the Federal merit system, which governs hiring, firing, and promotion of federal employees. Any action a government agency takes that affects its employees’ work lives is reviewable by the MSPB.

As a quasi-judicial agency, the MSPB is like a mini court system that handles appeals from federal employees related to their employment. The MSPB does not handle discrimination, unfair labor disputes, or other cases managed by another federal agency.

8. You Will Not Automatically Lose Your FERS Benefits if You Are Fired

Many federal employees believe that they will lose their FERS benefits if the agency they work for fires them. As a result, federal employees sometimes believe they should resign if they suspect an incoming termination.

However, this is incorrect; employees who get fired may still receive FERS disability if they can show that they qualified for it. Most importantly, they must show that their disability prevented them from useful and efficient service in their position.

A case called Delceg v. OPM involved exactly this situation. The U.S Postal Service fired a worker for misconduct unrelated to any disability. On appeal to the MSPB, the worker proved that a pre-existing knee injury prevented him from “useful and efficient” service before his firing. As a result, the MSPB awarded the worker disability retirement.

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