One of the biggest perks of being a federal employee is having access to the government’s comprehensive benefits package. Currently, most federal employees receive benefits under the Federal Employees Retirement System (FERS).
Although there are resources explaining FERS and how it works, they aren’t always as helpful as they could be. We frequently get questions from federal employees asking how to balance their medical and financial needs, and many times these employees have never heard of benefits such as disability retirement.
If you are wondering how federal disability works, this blog post hopefully demystifies federal disability to help you best understand your options.
What Is FERS?
FERS stands for Federal Employees Retirement System. This program is the modern disability program offered by the federal government. If you started your service earlier than 1987, your disability benefits will come from the Civil Service Retirement System (CSRS) instead.
Most of these provisions for disability retirement are substantially the same under CSRS, so if you are a CSRS employee you can qualify for disability retirement as well.
When Am I Eligible for FERS Disability?
Eligibility starts with your length of creditable service with the government. For employees covered under FERS, you must have at least 18 months of creditable federal civilian service to qualify.
Note that federal employees covered under CSRS need five years of service to qualify. In addition:
- Your disability must prevent you from “useful and efficient service” in your current position (in other words, you have a deficiency in your performance, attendance, and/or conduct);
- The expected length of the disability must be one year or greater;
- Your agency must be unable to accommodate your disability, either in your position or through reassignment;
- You must apply for disability before your separation from service or within one year after; and
- You must submit an application for Social Security benefits.
Whether your disability prevents you from useful and efficient service isn’t always obvious. For that reason, many federal employees seek advice from a federal disability lawyer.
Does FERS Include Short-Term Disability?
No, FERS does not include short-term disability. FERS does not cover disabilities expected to last less than one year. Other than sick leave, annual leave, and your agency’s leave bank (if available), there are no specific benefits for short-term disability.
However, in many cases of a short-term disability, the employing agency may be required to provide reasonable accommodation.
Reasonable accommodations may include leave, job restructuring, telework, ergonomic equipment, or another option which would allow the employee to perform the duties of his or her position.
FERS Disability and Social Security
As explained above, eligibility for FERS disability is partially dependent on the employee applying for Social Security benefits. So how does federal disability work when it comes to this requirement?
Fortunately, you don’t have to receive approval for Social Security benefits to receive FERS disability; you just have to apply.
You can be approved for both SSDI and FERS disability simultaneously. In such a case, you would generally receive your full SSDI benefit while receiving a reduced disability annuity from the Office of Personnel Management (OPM).
Unfortunately, keeping track of all the eligibility requirements can be difficult, especially if you’ve never worked with federal disability benefits in the past. We’re here to help you understand the process and make it as stress-free as possible.
Applying for FERS Disability
As with other government benefits programs, applying for FERS disability starts with completing several forms. Generally, you must complete at least SF 3107 and SF 3112.
Additionally, you will need to provide documentation that you applied for Social Security disability, and other supporting documents depending on your responses on the SF 3107 and SF 3112 forms.
During this first part of the process, your supervisor will also have to provide some information about your agency, position, and accommodations made available to you (if any).
If you are still on agency roles and not separated, or are within 30 days of separation, you must apply through your agency. If you are more than 30 days separated, then you will apply directly to OPM.
Once your application is submitted, the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) will review your eligibility before notifying you of its decision.
What to Do If You Are Denied FERS Disability Benefits
As a federal employee, you have a robust set of rights when it comes to your employment, including denial of benefits.
In a case where OPM disallows your application for FERS disability, you have 30 days to file a reconsideration appeal with OPM.
Note that on the reconsideration form, you may elect to submit additional information in support of your application. During this appeal, a reconsideration specialist will give your application a second review.
If your reconsideration appeal is denied as well, your next option is an appeal to the Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB). An MSPB administrative judge will review OPM’s decision to determine whether you are eligible for FERS disability.
If the administrative judge also denies your benefits, you can appeal to the MSPB board.
After that, you will have exhausted your administrative remedies, giving you the right to take your case to the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit.
Losing FERS Disability Benefits
Generally, once you’ve been approved for FERS disability, you will keep your benefits as long as you remain disabled.
However, OPM may require you to get periodic medical exams to continue receiving benefits. Accordingly, if you recover from your disability, your benefits will stop.
There are two other main reasons why you may lose your federal disability:
- Your income from wages and self-employment equals at least 80% of your base pay from the position you retired from; or
- You obtained employment in Federal service at an equivalent position.
Additionally, remember that your standard non-disability FERS retirement annuity will start when you reach age at 62. As a result, your disability benefits will stop at that time and you will be switched over to regular retirement through OPM.
Need Help with Your Federal Disability?
We recognize that understanding how federal disability works isn’t always clear. The Law Office of Aaron D. Wersing is here to help you understand your eligibility and help you successfully obtain the benefits you need.