Why Don’t Feds Get Disability Insurance?

Uncle Sam provides other options. 

Did you ever wonder why you aren’t covered by short- or long-term disability insurance as a federal employee? After all, in 2018, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 42% of private industry workers had access to short-term disability insurance plans and 34% to long-term plans. A quarter of state and local government workers had access to short-term coverage and 38% to long-term benefits.

Even more surprising is that most companies pay the cost of this coverage for their employees. Private employers in 2018 paid the full cost for 85% of workers with short-term disability coverage and 94% of workers with long-term disability coverage. State and local government employers paid the full cost for 87% of workers with short-term disability coverage and 83% of workers with long-term disability coverage.

What would happen if you found yourself unable to work for a month or longer? What if you suffered a serious illness or injury that kept you out of work even longer—or permanently? 

Federal employees do have some protection against short- and long-term disabling events. Sick leave is designed to cover the first and disability retirement the second. 

Sick Leave

Sick leave accumulates at four hours biweekly, which adds up to 104 hours per year, or 13 days of paid time off. That’s six months of short term disability protection after 10 years of federal service, and a full year after 20 years. This can be used for personal needs, including medical, dental, or optical exams, incapacitation for the performance of duties by physical or mental illness, injury, pregnancy, or childbirth; and situations in which coming to work would jeopardize the health of others by exposing them to a communicable disease.

An employee is entitled to a total of 12 weeks of sick leave each year to care for a family member with a serious health condition. That includes 13 days of sick leave for general family care or bereavement purposes. In addition, up to 13 days of sick leave per year can be used to provide care for a family member, under certain circumstances.

Sick leave also can be used during the adoption of a child for such purposes as appointments with adoption agencies, court proceedings and required travel.

While using your sick leave, you continue to earn leave and receive your full salary and benefits. Once your sick leave runs out, your agency has the discretion to provide advanced leave for you. Depending on the circumstances, either 13 days or up to 30 days can be advanced. If you participate in your agency's voluntary leave transfer or leave bank programs, you can substitute donated annual leave for sick leave that was advanced on or after the date of the medical emergency. 

Disability Retirement

If you have a serious illness or permanent disability due to an accident or other injury, you can consider disability retirement as a last resort. You will need to provide your agency with complete documentation of your medical condition, and the agency must exhaust all reasonable attempts to retain you in a productive capacity.

In addition to completing the regular application for immediate retirement (SF 3107), you must file form SF 3112, Documentation In Support of Disability Retirement.

Employees covered by the Federal Employees Retirement System must also apply for Social Security disability before they can be approved by the Office of Personnel Management for FERS disability benefits. Employees are not required to be approved for Social Security disability. 

The conditions for approval for Social Security disability are much broader than they are for FERS. Social Security pays benefits to people who can’t work because they have a medical condition that’s expected to last at least one year or result in death. But first, the Social Security Administration’s Disability Determination Services office in your state will try to find other work you could do despite your condition.

Next week, we’ll look at whether you should take seriously the sales pitches you receive for short- and long-term disability insurance.