We have updated this article to include the most up-to-date information on applying for FERS/OPM Federal Disability Retirement in 2024.
If you are a federal employee who has a medical condition that prevents you from performing “useful and efficient” service in your position, you may be able to qualify for Federal Disability Retirement. In this article we will outline the qualification standards for federal employees and help you understand if this benefit is right for you.
To qualify for Federal Disability Retirement, you must submit an application to the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) supporting your inability to perform the major functions of your position due to a disability or injury. This application is reviewed by the OPM, who issues the decision and administers the benefit to those that qualify.
In terms of Federal Disability Retirement, the OPM defines disability as…
“Any medical condition that inhibits an employee from continuing to complete at least one of the major functions of their current position.”
Who is eligible for Federal Disability Retirement?
In order to be eligible, you must be enrolled in the Civil Service Retirement System (CSRS) for a minimum of 5 years or the Federal Employees Retirement System (FERS) for a minimum of 18 months as a full-time career employee.
Your qualification for Federal Disability Retirement is based on medical evidence from a doctor supporting your claim that you are unable to do even one of your job duties due to a disability, for a period of at least 12 months. This means that even if you are on a light-duty work assignment, that you will still be eligible for disability retirement. In some cases, this change in work can benefit you when building a case.
Keep in mind that this doesn’t have to be a work-related injury. For example, you could have hurt your back while lifting weights at the gym which led to an injury that stops you from lifting over 20 pounds at your job. If this injury is expected to last at least 12 months and lifting over 20 pounds is one of your job requirements, then this is an injury that could qualify for Federal Disability Retirement.
Additionally, your condition could have existed before you began working in your position but worsened during your employment with the federal government.
Total vs. Occupational Disability
In order to qualify for Federal Disability Retirement, you must be able to prove that you have an occupational disability. This means that you have a disability that stops you from performing your exact job description. This is different from a total disability that would inhibit you from performing any job, anywhere. Therefore, some federal employees can qualify for Federal Disability Retirement but not Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI).
What kind of medical conditions can qualify for Federal Disability Retirement?
Physical and mental conditions can qualify for Federal Disability Retirement. We have compiled a list of common medical conditions from cases that have qualified for Federal Disability Retirement at our firm.
- Physical tear (ligament, etc)
- Car accident
- Stroke or heart attack
- Degenerative diseases
- Carpal tunnel syndrome
- Rotator cuff injuries
- Major Depressive Disorder
- Bipolar Disease
On the job vs Pre-existing
Any medical condition that doesn’t allow you to perform all of the essential duties of your position can qualify for Federal Disability Retirement. This medical condition could’ve arisen while on the job or be a pre-existing condition that worsened overtime. For example, you could have severe migraines that have gotten worse while working for the federal government. Since the migraines are a pre-existing condition, it could still be a disability that would qualify you for Federal Disability Retirement.
Remember, the disability…
- does not have to be caused by work.
- Must have worsened while employed.
- Must be backed with medical evidence from a doctor.
- Must be expected to persist for at least 12 months.
- Must cause you to be unable to perform ONLY ONE of the duties of your job.
Reasonable Accommodations/Modified Work
The OPM considers an “accommodation” to be an adjustment made to a job and/or work environment that enables a qualified handicapped person to perform the duties of that position. Light and modified duty are not considered a reasonable accommodation by OPM for purposes of disability retirement.
In order to qualify for Federal Disability Retirement, OPM requires that your agency is unable to accommodate you or reassign you. A valid reassignment is a vacant existing position at your same pay and grade level within your commuting area for which you are qualified and is within your medical restrictions. Keep in mind that you are not required to accept a reassignment that does not meet these criteria.
You must meet all the following conditions to qualify for Federal Disability Retirement:
1. You must have completed at least 18 months of Federal civilian service which is creditable under FERS.
2. You must, while employed in a position subject to the retirement system, have become disabled, because of disease or injury, for useful and efficient service in your current position, or your condition must have worsened.
3. The disability must be expected to last at least one year.
4. Your agency must certify that it is unable to accommodate your disabling medical condition in your present position and that it has considered you for any vacant position in the same agency at the same grade or pay level, within the same commuting area, for which you are qualified for reassignment. (An employee of the Postal Service is considered not qualified for reassignment if the reassignment is to a position in a different craft or is inconsistent with the terms of a collective bargaining agreement covering the employee.) Learn more about reasonable accommodations.
5. You, or your guardian or other interested person, must apply before your separation from service or within one year thereafter.The application must be received by OPM within one year of the date of your separation.
6. You must apply for Social Security Disability benefits. Application for disability retirement under FERS requires an application for social security disability benefits. If the application for social security disability benefits is withdrawn for any reason, OPM will dismiss the FERS disability retirement application upon notification by the Social Security Administration.
Special Provisions Considerations
If you are a special provisions employee your Federal Disability Retirement will be different so there are a few things to take into consideration when applying.
Generally Special Provisions have higher fit for duty requirements than other FERS positions. They also have stricter medication allowances since most special provision employees are considered unfit if taking any type of antidepressant or antipsychotic.
If you are a Law Enforcement Officer, then Law Enforcement Availability Pay (aka administratively uncontrollable overtime) represents up to 25% of an LEO salary and is usually included in the basic pay/High 3 calculations. However, there are some agencies and positions that do not include this in retirement calculations.
If you qualify and are approved for Federal Disability Retirement, then you will continue to receive creditable years of service until age 62 which can be beneficial to your retirement calculation.
What We Anticipate in 2024
Great news for retirees and future retirees! In 2023, the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) saw a consistent decrease in their retirement backlog. This backlog dipped under 16,000 on three separate occasions during the year, hitting a remarkable low of 14,292 in December. This represents the smallest backlog since 2017 when the pending cases briefly dropped to approximately 14,000 claims.
This marks a significant improvement compared to previous years, where the backlog was on the rise more often than not, causing delays in processing.
Currently, the average waiting time for an initial decision at the OPM is around 4-6 months, a notable reduction from previous years. This positive trend gives hope for continued improvement in 2024.
In addition to the backlog improvement, OPM released an IT Strategic Plan in 2023. This plan aims to modernize the retirement processing pipeline, ensuring a more efficient and streamlined experience for all involved.
These upcoming changes hold promise for retirees and future retirees as the OPM works toward delivering a smoother retirement experience.
Our Federal Disability Retirement Attorneys Can Help You
Harris Federal Law Firm helps injured federal employees prepare the medical evidence and legal arguments necessary during the disability retirement application process with the Office of Personnel Management (OPM).
We have successfully represented 6,000+ federal employees and we have the professional experience and expertise to guide you through the entire process.
We can also help you with a reconsideration appeal to the OPM or even take on the proceedings of the Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB).
Call us today to schedule your FREE consultation to learn more about your benefits.