FECA or Disability Retirement? Options for Federal Employees Disabled at Work


Unfortunately for federal employees who are injured and disabled at work, one of the toughest choices they’ll ever have to make arrives at a terrible time. It’s wonderful to have options as a federal employee. However, understanding the differences between accepting disability retirement and federal workers’ compensation can be a challenge—especially for those already struggling with health issues.

FECA benefits in focus

Federal employees do not get standard workers’ comp through the state when they are injured at work. Instead, they receive workers’ compensation benefits through FECA, the Federal Employees Compensation Act. FECA is administered through the Office of Worker Compensation Programs, which is part of the United States Department of Labor. (Federal employees covered by other laws, such as black lung coal miners, railroad workers, members of the armed forces, harbor workers, and longshoremen, do not get FECA benefits.)

What are the requirements to receive FECA benefits?

FECA offers injury compensation and benefits for federal employees who are injured at work, injured offsite in the course of their employment, and who suffer from occupational diseases. FECA also provides benefits to beneficiaries of employees that die on the job. All federal employees (aside from the exceptions noted above) are eligible for FECA coverage no matter what federal job they do or how long they’ve held it. Private contractors working for the federal government are not covered by FECA.

Diseases and injuries that arise from activities that are “outside the course and scope of employment” are not covered by FECA. Some examples of activities that are “outside the course and scope of employment” are personally motivated activities, commuting, and recreational outings. Injuries sustained while impaired by non-prescription drugs or intoxicated will probably not be covered.

Temporary injuries and illnesses can trigger FECA benefits; benefits for the first 45 days of disability come directly from the employee’s agency, and thereafter directly from FECA. Claims based on occupational diseases trigger benefits directly from FECA after a three day waiting period only.

What FECA benefits do federal employees get?

If your claim for FECA workers’ compensation is approved, you will receive benefits to assist in your recovery and compensate for your illness or injury. FECA will cover all medical treatment related to your claim that is necessary and proper, such as prescriptions, surgery, equipment such as power wheelchairs or walkers, and rehabilitation.

If you need job retraining in order to get back to work after a claim-related illness or injury, you will also get FECA benefits for vocational retraining.

Permanent disability

Any permanent disability that arises from a work-related claim, whether partial or total, will merit extra benefits from FECA. FECA calculates the amount of the permanent disability compensation based on the needs of your dependents, the severity of the disability, and how your future earnings capacity is affected.

Federal disability retirement in focus

All federal employees including postal workers enjoy federal disability retirement benefits under the Federal Employees Retirement System (FERS) and, for those who entered service before 1983, the Civil Service Retirement System (CSRS). CSRS employees are only eligible after five years of service, while FERS employees are covered after just 18 months. All applications for disability retirement are approved or disapproved by the Office of Personnel Management (OPM).

What disability retirement benefits do federal employees get?

The disability retirement program provides an annuity that replaces part of your lost salary since you can no longer perform your job due to your disability. FERS/CSRS benefits are different from Social Security Disability in that to receive the latter you must be “totally” disabled. In contrast, FERS and CSRS simply require that your disability prevent you from doing one or more of your type of job’s essential duties.

How does the process work?

Nevertheless, FERS employees must also file for Social Security Disability as part of their FERS application process. (CSRS employees need not do this.) FERS employees can wait to file for Social Security until after they are approved for FERS disability benefits and have left federal service.

Sometimes federal employees who elect to receive disability retirement benefits go on to work another totally different job. This is allowed, provided that the new job is different enough, and provided that it pays 80 percent or less of what his or her former position paid.

The disability retirement application process is long and at times arduous; expect to wait six to eight months for an answer. As soon as you’re aware that your disability will last for one year or longer, file right away. You can work as you wait for a decision. Remember, you must file within one year of separating from your job, or you’ll lose disability retirement benefits forever.

How to proceed when you are disabled on the job as a federal employee

The decision to elect to receive disability retirement benefits or FECA benefits isn’t clear cut. As you evaluate your options, keep these facts in mind:

The work-related requirement only applies to FECA

The main difference between disability retirement and FECA is that the disability need not be work-related for disability retirement benefits to be triggered. However, to receive FECA benefits, your illness or injury must have arisen from performing your federal job.

Apply for both FECA and disability retirement benefits when appropriate

You can apply for both FECA and disability retirement benefits at the same time, and in most cases you should. This preserves your rights and your survivors’ rights. For FERS employees this means applying for FECA benefits, disability retirement benefits, and Social Security Disability benefits.

Most federal employees who get approved for both choose FECA benefits, simply because they tend to be higher. You can’t receive both FECA and disability retirement benefits at the same time, just as you can’t collect Social Security Disability benefits while you collect federal disability retirement benefits.

If you will choose FECA benefits over disability retirement benefits, plan ahead

If you are approved for disability benefits before you are approved for FECA benefits and you later choose to receive FECA benefits, you will need to pay back the disability retirement benefits you received in the interim. Usually the amount to be paid back is withheld from the FECA benefits.

Receipt of FECA benefits will not hurt your eligibility for disability retirement benefits

You cannot receive disability retirement benefits while you’re getting FECA benefits. However, if you stop receiving FECA benefits, even by choice, you can receive disability retirement benefits again so long as you have not been restored to your former earning capacity or otherwise recovered from your disability.

The bottom line

It’s not easy to decide which kind of benefits are the best choice. However, it makes sense to apply for both types in most cases. If you do elect to receive FECA benefits, don’t forget to track your disability and illness expenses so you can be compensated for everything from medications to wheelchairs. Good luck with your FECA or disability retirement decision.

Unfortunately for federal employees who are injured and disabled at work, one of the toughest choices they’ll ever have to make arrives at a terrible time. It’s wonderful to have options as a federal employee. However, understanding the differences between accepting disability retirement and federal workers’ compensation can be a challenge—especially for those already struggling with health issues.

FECA benefits in focus

Federal employees do not get standard workers’ comp through the state when they are injured at work. Instead, they receive workers’ compensation benefits through FECA, the Federal Employees Compensation Act. FECA is administered through the Office of Worker Compensation Programs, which is part of the United States Department of Labor. (Federal employees covered by other laws, such as black lung coal miners, railroad workers, members of the armed forces, harbor workers, and longshoremen, do not get FECA benefits.)

What are the requirements to receive FECA benefits?

FECA offers injury compensation and benefits for federal employees who are injured at work, injured offsite in the course of their employment, and who suffer from occupational diseases. FECA also provides benefits to beneficiaries of employees that die on the job. All federal employees (aside from the exceptions noted above) are eligible for FECA coverage no matter what federal job they do or how long they’ve held it. Private contractors working for the federal government are not covered by FECA.

Diseases and injuries that arise from activities that are “outside the course and scope of employment” are not covered by FECA. Some examples of activities that are “outside the course and scope of employment” are personally motivated activities, commuting, and recreational outings. Injuries sustained while impaired by non-prescription drugs or intoxicated will probably not be covered.

Temporary injuries and illnesses can trigger FECA benefits; benefits for the first 45 days of disability come directly from the employee’s agency, and thereafter directly from FECA. Claims based on occupational diseases trigger benefits directly from FECA after a three day waiting period only.

What FECA benefits do federal employees get?

If your claim for FECA workers’ compensation is approved, you will receive benefits to assist in your recovery and compensate for your illness or injury. FECA will cover all medical treatment related to your claim that is necessary and proper, such as prescriptions, surgery, equipment such as power wheelchairs or walkers, and rehabilitation.

If you need job retraining in order to get back to work after a claim-related illness or injury, you will also get FECA benefits for vocational retraining.

Permanent disability

Any permanent disability that arises from a work-related claim, whether partial or total, will merit extra benefits from FECA. FECA calculates the amount of the permanent disability compensation based on the needs of your dependents, the severity of the disability, and how your future earnings capacity is affected.

Federal disability retirement in focus

All federal employees including postal workers enjoy federal disability retirement benefits under the Federal Employees Retirement System (FERS) and, for those who entered service before 1983, the Civil Service Retirement System (CSRS). CSRS employees are only eligible after five years of service, while FERS employees are covered after just 18 months. All applications for disability retirement are approved or disapproved by the Office of Personnel Management (OPM).

What disability retirement benefits do federal employees get?

The disability retirement program provides an annuity that replaces part of your lost salary since you can no longer perform your job due to your disability. FERS/CSRS benefits are different from Social Security Disability in that to receive the latter you must be “totally” disabled. In contrast, FERS and CSRS simply require that your disability prevent you from doing one or more of your type of job’s essential duties.

How does the process work?

Nevertheless, FERS employees must also file for Social Security Disability as part of their FERS application process. (CSRS employees need not do this.) FERS employees can wait to file for Social Security until after they are approved for FERS disability benefits and have left federal service.

Sometimes federal employees who elect to receive disability retirement benefits go on to work another totally different job. This is allowed, provided that the new job is different enough, and provided that it pays 80 percent or less of what his or her former position paid.

The disability retirement application process is long and at times arduous; expect to wait six to eight months for an answer. As soon as you’re aware that your disability will last for one year or longer, file right away. You can work as you wait for a decision. Remember, you must file within one year of separating from your job, or you’ll lose disability retirement benefits forever.

How to proceed when you are disabled on the job as a federal employee

The decision to elect to receive disability retirement benefits or FECA benefits isn’t clear cut. As you evaluate your options, keep these facts in mind:

The work-related requirement only applies to FECA

The main difference between disability retirement and FECA is that the disability need not be work-related for disability retirement benefits to be triggered. However, to receive FECA benefits, your illness or injury must have arisen from performing your federal job.

Apply for both FECA and disability retirement benefits when appropriate

You can apply for both FECA and disability retirement benefits at the same time, and in most cases you should. This preserves your rights and your survivors’ rights. For FERS employees this means applying for FECA benefits, disability retirement benefits, and Social Security Disability benefits.

Most federal employees who get approved for both choose FECA benefits, simply because they tend to be higher. You can’t receive both FECA and disability retirement benefits at the same time, just as you can’t collect Social Security Disability benefits while you collect federal disability retirement benefits.

If you will choose FECA benefits over disability retirement benefits, plan ahead

If you are approved for disability benefits before you are approved for FECA benefits and you later choose to receive FECA benefits, you will need to pay back the disability retirement benefits you received in the interim. Usually the amount to be paid back is withheld from the FECA benefits.

Receipt of FECA benefits will not hurt your eligibility for disability retirement benefits

You cannot receive disability retirement benefits while you’re getting FECA benefits. However, if you stop receiving FECA benefits, even by choice, you can receive disability retirement benefits again so long as you have not been restored to your former earning capacity or otherwise recovered from your disability.

The bottom line

It’s not easy to decide which kind of benefits are the best choice. However, it makes sense to apply for both types in most cases. If you do elect to receive FECA benefits, don’t forget to track your disability and illness expenses so you can be compensated for everything from medications to wheelchairs. Good luck with your FECA or disability retirement decision.