Expect More Attacks on Injured Workers

March 1, 2016

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(This article first appeared in the March-April 2016 issue of The American Postal Worker magazine.) 

Over the last decade, attacks on injured federal employees and postal workers, led primarily by Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME), have been relentless.

But she isn’t the only one who has tried to dismantle the comprehensive coverage provided by the Federal Employees Compensation Act (FECA).

Over the years, proponents of cuts have become more cunning. They claim their proposals will minimize fraud, remove “disincentives” to return-to-work, and make benefits more equitable.

The Government Accounting Office (GAO) has demonstrated that their claims are meritless, but this has not deterred them from efforts to gut benefits.

Although President Obama’s fiscal year 2017 budget request excluded negative FECA measures, and Secretary of Labor Perez rejected proposals to slash FECA benefits, we fully expect Sen. Collins and her partners to wage future attacks on FECA.

What’s at Stake?

Proposals to amend FECA are expected to include cuts to wage loss compensation (WLC), reductions in benefits when claimants reach retirement age, a Fraud Task Force, more second opinion examinations (SecOps), and additional requirements for vocational rehabilitation.

According to the USPS Office of Inspector General (OIG), less than 1/6 of one percent of FECA claimants has been found guilty of fraud – including misdemeanor offenses. This is hardly evidence of a systemic problem warranting a task force.

Requiring claimants to get second opinions when fraud is virtually non-existent constitutes a witch hunt – one that comes with a $387 million price tag. OWCP already has the authority to order these exams as it deems necessary.

FECA dismantlers also want to reduce the current compensation rate for claimants with dependents, from 75 percent to as little as 66 2/3 percent. And when claimants reach a prescribed retirement age, they intend to reduce compensation to 50 percent, alleging the benefit is more generous than workers’ earnings or retirees’ annuities.

However, according to a July 2013 study by the Government Accountability Office (GAO), workers collecting WLC bring home 7.4 to 14.4 percent less than they would if they were working. Another GAO study revealed that the median FECA benefit package is significantly less than regular retirement benefits.

Under the ill-conceived proposals, FECA benefits would be 22 to 35 percent less than the median FERS retirement package. Keep in mind, those who receive compensation do not earn leave or contractual pay raises. Their benefits are locked in, based on the pay they earned when they were injured. They cannot contribute to their Thrift Savings Plan or receive matching funds.

Leonard Howie, director of the Office of Workers Compensation (OWCP) testified on May 20, 2015, before a House Committee that “less than 2 percent of the injured workforce covered by FECA remains on the long-term compensation rolls more than two years after sustaining their injury.” His statement clearly demonstrates that it’s unnecessary to require employees with temporary medical restrictions to participate in OWCP’s vocational rehabilitation program.

Changes to FECA will affect all of us, whether we’re injured or not. It will affect our family and friends. It will negatively affect state compensation programs. It will burden many health care and human services providers. 

Correction:The Human Relations article in the January-February 2016 issue regarding the Wounded Warriors Federal Leave Act failed to state that employees hired on or after Nov 5, 2016, will be eligible to take advantage of the benefits from their first day of employment.

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