Reg Jones Expert's View

Last week I explained how the workers’ compensation program administered by OWCP can be an alternative to disability retirement. This time I want to explain the options you have if you qualify for both benefits.

First, we need to review the differences between the two programs. The government’s disability retirement program provides an annuity that partially replaces the salary you lost because you are unable to perform on the job because of a disabling condition. While CSRS and FERS disability annuities are payable whether or not the disease or injury was incurred on the job, workers’ comp isn’t. To receive workers’ comp benefits, your disease or injury must have been sustained on-the-job and in the performance of your official duties.

If you believe you are eligible for workers’ compensation, you should also apply for disability retirement benefits at the same time. That way you can protect your rights and those of your survivors. Note: If you are covered by FERS and apply for disability retirement, you have to also file for a Social Security disability benefit, otherwise OPM won’t review your application.

If you are approved for both workers’ comp and disability retirement, you’ll have to choose which one you want to receive. Because the benefits available under workers’ compensation are generally greater, most employees choose them, holding their entitlement to disability retirement in reserve in case their workers’ comp benefits end.

Because two agencies will be involved in deciding your case, one will inevitably come to a decision before the other. So, for example, if OPM approves your application first, it will start making annuity payments to you. If OWCP later awards you benefits and you elect to accept them, you’ll need to pay OPM back for the annuity payments you’ve already received. As a rule, OWCP will simply withhold that amount from your workers’ comp payment, which will be retroactive to the date when you left the employment rolls.

While you are on workers’ comp, your disability annuity payments will be suspended. However, if that compensation ends for any reason, OPM will reinstate your annuity, but only if you haven’t recovered from your disability or been restored to earning capacity.

Note: The time you spend on workers’ comp won’t be counted in computing a new disability annuity or a regular annuity based on age and service. Instead, the annuity will be computed based on your service and "high-3" average salary on the date you separated from the service. On the other hand, it will be increased by any cost-of-living-adjustments (COLAs) that were given to retirees during that time.

If you die as a result of the job-related disease or injury, your surviving spouse and/or children may be eligible for both death benefits from OWCP and survivor benefits under CSRS or FERS. Once again, the law prohibits the concurrent payment of workers’ comp benefits and a survivor annuity. The survivor will have to decide which of the two benefits to receive.

In my final article in this series, I’ll explain what happens to your disability annuity if you return to work for the federal government.