Return to Work Responsibility

Sue Carney

September 12, 2019

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(This article first appeared in the September/October 2019 issue of the American Postal Worker magazine) 

To help injured employees return to suitable employment, the Postal Service may request medical progress reports. Form CA-17 is generally used for this purpose but is not required. Preexisting disabilities, workrelated or otherwise, are factored into job offers and therefore should be included.

These reports may be requested at reasonable intervals – generally every 30 days for employees with temporary medical restrictions unless otherwise indicated by the physician, and annually once disabilities are deemed permanent. An earlier request is permitted when a change in condition is suspected.

Employees should refrain from seeking ‘permanent’ declarations to avoid more frequent medical reporting. Employees with permanent disabilities may be subjected to the Office of Workers’ Compensation Programs (OWCP) vocational rehabilitation program, which rarely has a favorable outcome.

The USPS is permitted to contact the physician directly, but only in writing and only in reference to work limitations and possible job assignments. The employee and OWCP should be copied, and be sent a copy of the physician’s response upon receipt. Telephone contact and personal visits are not permitted for any reason except fraud investigations.

Claimants should forewarn physicians about these rules and request they be alerted when communications are received and consulted prior to responding. The doctor and office staff should also be advised that OWCP makes all claim and bill payment decisions and should be informed that USPS frequently oversteps its authority in an effort to sidestep Department of Labor privacy rules.

It is preferable for the employee to return to their bid provided they are able to perform the core essential duties of their position, with or without reasonable accommodations. When this is possible, their job is not considered a modified assignment. When this is not possible, the Postal Service must then make every effort to find medically suitable work within the employee’s work limitation tolerance with minimal disruption to the employee. (ELM 546.142 a. 1-4). This is a daily obligation (USPS must make every effort).

Job offers should identify whether the assignment is temporary or permanent, and must include a description of the duties, specify all physical requirements, and indicate any special workload demands or unusual working conditions, the job location, effective date of the position, date the employee must accept or refuse the offer and the position’s pay rate. Job offers may be made verbally but must be provided in writing within 2 business days. (ELM 545.32)

Employees are responsible to have their treating physician review any job offer to determine if they can perform the assignment. (ELM 545.33 b., c.). As a result, any mandate that requires an employee to accept or refuse a job offer immediately is a contract violation.

Refusals do not immediately put compensation benefits at risk. OWCP conducts suitability determinations on all refused offers, but not on offers accepted under duress. If an employee is already collecting wage loss benefits, they will continue to do so during the process. However, if an employee has been working and is sent home in response to a refusal, a recurrence claim (CA2a) should be filed for “employer withdrawal of medically suitable work”, a claim for continuation of pay, or if ineligible, wage loss compensation (CA7) should also be filed, and a grievance should be initiated.

OWCP grants 30 days by letter for claimants to explain and document why an offer is unsuitable. Do not miss the deadline. Upon receipt, OWCP makes a final determination. If considered suitable and the employee fails to report to a temporary assignment, compensation is suspended until the offer no longer exists. To reinstate compensation, notify the USPS in writing of your willingness to now accept that specific offer. Failure to respond or an unfavorable response should be communicated to OWCP and benefits should be reinstated. When the offer is permanent, compensation benefits are permanently terminated.

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