The U.S. Office of Personnel Management (OPM) pays early retirement benefits to eligible federal employees who become unable to perform essential functions of their jobs because of disabling mental or physical impairments. Unfortunately, at times workers whose disabilities are related to mental illness rather than physical sickness or injury face unique uphill battles to secure their rightful disability retirement benefits.
Mental impairments are harder to detect
People cannot “see” mental illness like they can physical, so a mental disability seems invisible and subjective. To the extent a symptom may manifest in certain behaviors, people may assume the employee is unsocial, unorganized, withdrawn, eccentric, confused, insecure, unfriendly or have another negative quality. In fact, behavior may be directly linked to a mental illness or to a medication that the person takes to treat it.
The diagnosis can cause an automatic second guess, so a claimant may be disadvantaged by the stereotypes, misperceptions or wrong assumptions of those who learn of the diagnosis such as supervisors, managers and those OPM employees who decide claims for disability retirement.
Why is OPM disability retirement for mental health an issue now?
The adverse events in our nation and around the world in the past couple of years have taken a toll on many Americans – including of course federal workers. Some have experienced isolation, financial challenge from COVID-19 issues, or personal trauma when a loved one experienced severe medical problems or died from the illness. Major differences within families and between friends about political beliefs and attitudes towards coronavirus policies have strained relationships. All of this during a time of civil unrest that swept the country.
The resulting anxiety, PTSD, depression or other mental health problems that may have had seeds in these events is understandable. Associated stress and fatigue may also have worsened pre-existing mental health conditions or made it harder to adhere to therapeutic treatment towards mental wellness. Or, on top of everything else, some individuals just spontaneously developed mental disorders, which can cause a wide variety of symptoms, including disability at an intensity that can interfere with the ability to work.
Related symptoms that might impact the ability to effectively carry out employment tasks or maintain acceptable levels of productivity include:
- Inability to concentrate
- Cognitive challenges
- Difficulty with self-care
- Addictive behavior
- Inability to regulate emotions
- Self-isolation and withdrawal from colleagues
- Excessive worry
- Frequent absence or lateness
- And others
(Eligibility requirements may vary depending on whether the worker is covered under the FERS retirement program or the earlier CSRS.)
More about disability retirement for federal employees
OPM disability retirement does not require that the impairments be work related like workers’ compensation does. Instead, the question is whether disability prevents meaningful work – not whether the impairment grew out of the workplace.
In addition to being unable to perform the job’s essential functions, other eligibility requirements include:
- File application for Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) (FERS only)
- At least 18 months of federal service in most cases
- Reasonable accommodations not available that would allow performance of current job plus no other position that could accommodate the employee’s disability
- Disability that will last a minimum of one year
We provide an overview of the program here.
Federal employees facing work challenges because of mental health diagnoses should immediately seek legal advice and file for disability retirement so as not to miss any deadlines.
It can be immensely helpful to confer with a law firm that regularly represents federal workers in their pursuit of disability retirement. Legal counsel will understand the requirements of the program and be able to explore eligibility for early retirement benefits based on mental illness.
A claim begins with an OPM application with options for appeal if the application is denied. An attorney can assist with the initial application or at any phase of the process, although early counsel is helpful. The lawyer can also help gather detailed medical proof of disability to submit to OPM.