If you are no longer able to perform your job at a productive level, whether you are a current federal employee or have just left your agency within the past year, you may be eligible for federal disability retirement benefits. It’s crucial to know whether you’re eligible, when to apply, and the procedures you must follow to get these benefits. You must fulfill a number of prerequisites set forth by the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) in order to qualify for benefits under the Federal Employees Retirement System (or “FERS”). These circumstances consist of:
- Having completed at least 18 months of work creditable under the FERS.
- While employed, you were diagnosed with or a pre-existing disability became worse to such an extent or in such a manner that hinders your ability to provide “useful and efficient service” in your current position.
- Having certification from your employing agency that they are unable to accommodate your disability and cannot reassign you to another position in the same agency or at your pay grade.
- Your disability must be expected to last longer than one year.
- That either you or your guardian must apply for disability retirement while employed or no later than one year of your separation from service.
- You must apply for social security disability benefits.
Your disability need not have been brought on by an accident or condition related to your job—disability retirement is not worker’s compensation. These are two separate benefits systems (i.e., different processes, applicable policies, and determining federal agencies for whether you qualify). Furthermore, you are not required to be authorized for social security benefits in order to be approved for FERS disability retirement benefits. OPM only requires that you apply for social security benefits at the time of application.
If the aforementioned requirements are satisfied, you must then finish filling out SF 3107, Application for Immediate Retirement, and SF 3112, Documentation in Support of Disability Retirement. While your agency can assist you in completing these forms and sending them to OPM, it will be your obligation to present the necessary medical evidence and paperwork to OPM. Statements from you and your physician on your medical condition, prognosis, and inability to perform the essential functions of your position will be very important to include and weigh heavily in the application review. It is also important to include all medical conditions you have been diagnosed with while employed at your agency.
Keep in mind that you need to move quickly if you want to qualify for disability benefits. As previously stated, your application must reach OPM while you are employed, or not later than one year of your separation date. Delaying your application can cause issues at your agency because you won’t have access to your personnel records quickly enough to submit the application on time. If it has been more than 30 days since you left federal service, you are able to submit the application directly to OPM and do not need to have your agency send on your behalf. If applying directly to OPM, it is recommended that you save a copy of all documents sent, as well as sending the application package by certified mail or other service with tracking. If you are still employed, you will need to apply through your agency and it’s always a good idea to monitor the status and follow up with the relevant agency department to ensure the forms required from the agency are being timely completed and sent to OPM. It would be recommended that you request a copy of all documents sent to OPM by your agency and have a confirmation when your agency sent the application package to OPM as well.
If your application is approved, OPM will provide you with your final retirement record, and your agency will certify the date of your separation. OPM will likely request regular medical updates on your condition(s) for which you were approved for disability retirement in order for you to continue receiving benefits. You will be responsible for paying for any medical exams that are required to obtain such updates. It is possible your disability benefits may be suspended until you submit the appropriate documentation, so it is important to not delay in responding and providing information to OPM when requested. Your benefits could be stopped if it is determined that your medical condition(s) have improved to such an extent that you would be able to perform the essential functions of your previous position or you stop receiving routine medical care and do not have any medical treatment history or records to provide OPM showing your medical condition(s) remain debilitating.
If your application is rejected, you do have thirty (30) days from the date of the initial decision to request a reconsideration directly to OPM, at which point you can add new or updated documentation to your application to address any of the reasons OPM initially denied you benefits. Eventually, you will have the right to request that an Administrative Judge of the Merit Systems Protection Board examine your case if the final determination by OPM still refuses to provide you with FERS disability retirement benefits.
Although FERS disability is meant to assist federal service employees, it can be challenging to manage and stay on top of the necessary paperwork and time requirements. It may be prudent to consult with an experienced federal employment lawyer who can guide you through the procedure and represent you if your application is denied.
Amanda Smith, Esq. is an associate attorney in Tully Rinckey PLLC’s Buffalo office, where she focuses her practice on federal and state employment and labor law. She can be reached at email@example.com or at (888)-529-4543.