In mid-April, my partner Dan Goodkin and I, as members of the FECA [Federal Employees’ Compensation Act] Section of WILG [Workers’ Injury Law & Advocacy Group] traveled to Washington, DC for what are now our annual meetings with top officials at OWCP [U. S Department of Labor, Office of Workers’ Compensation Programs] and ECAB [U. S Department of Labor, Employees’ Compensation Appeals Board].
The first of these meetings Dan and I attended was held in October 2015, and now they encompass productive give-and-take discussions between the FECA claimants’ bar (the vast majority of whom are members of WILG) and the decision-makers who manage FECA — the only workers’ compensation program that covers the approximately 3 million federal civilian employees. Dan attended as co-chair of the FECA Section, and I attended as a member of WILG’s Federal Legislative Committee. Over time we have also added meetings at the U. S. Office of Personnel Management [OPM] with top officials there who manage the system of retirement benefits for federal employees, as well as meetings with interested parties on Capitol Hill.
At OWCP we expressed our appreciation for the openness with which we have been met at various OWCP offices and the dialog that has developed. Topics discussed included ways to improve communication between OWCP and claimant’s attorneys in terms of the latter being copied on the complicated earnings questionnaires sent to our clients, and our being able to talk to OWCP nurse case managers, We also discussed what level of proof is required to exclude a medical examiner as biased against the injured worker, and what additional efforts OWCP should make to develop the record in emotional stress cases. Finally, we pointed out the problem that OWCP hearing representatives frequently do not address the legal arguments or the testimony presented at hearings when they issue their decisions, which of course leaves one to wonder what law applies and what facts were considered relevant. While agreement was not reached on all issues, inroads were made and we expect some changes soon. We invited OWCP personnel to attend WILG’s annual convention in the Fall, as they have at our invitation for the last two years; their appearances and presentations have been well received and appreciated.
We also met with the Chairman and Chief Judge of ECAB, and are following up with him on topics such as the need for ECAB to issue final decisions, simplification of some appeals processes including attorney fee approvals, transcripts of oral arguments made before the Board, etc.
At OPM, we complimented the officials on the informal mechanisms we’ve been able to establish to correct errors specifically in disability retirement cases. Federal employees who become disabled after being in the job a sufficient length of time can retire early if their disability — whether work-related or not — is permanent and either renders them unable to perform their duties or is incompatible with useful and efficient service in the job. Benefits in such cases are less than workers’ compensation and are taxable, but are payable in full even if the worker is able to obtain a lower-paying non-federal job.
On Capitol Hill, we joined other WILG members in lobbying for the interests of injured workers, including protection of workers’ compensation benefits and hard-won federal employee job security and due process rights. In this age of hyper-partisanship, the value of having a professional federal civil service free from compromising political manipulation is perhaps greater than ever.
NOTE: The House Committee on Education & the Workforce held a hearing on May 8, 2018 on the subject of OWCP’s response to the opioid crisis as it relates to injured federal employees covered under FECA. The general consensus of the witnesses was that, despite some changes initiated last August, FECA is behind the times in this regard, with insufficient policies and procedures to control over-prescription of opioid medications. We will keep you informed of developments on this issue.