Possible cuts in workers’ compensation cause concern

Joe Davidson
Columnist March 28, 2012

Reginald Gipson was a Secret Service agent on his way to a Syracuse, N.Y., duty call when a common villain got the best of him. He slipped on snow-covered ice and suffered more than embarrassment.

The fall injured two disks in his back and nerves in his right leg.

Joe Davidson writes the Federal Diary, a column about the federal workplace that celebrated its 80th birthday in November 2012. View Archive

“I’m in constant pain,” he said. “I can’t stand for long periods of time. I can’t sit for long periods of time. I can’t sleep. Even walking short distances is difficult for me.”

Also difficult for him is understanding why Congress might sharply cut workers’ compensation payments covered by the Federal Employees’ Compensation Act. The reductions would take place three years after enactment and, according to the Labor Department, hit about 18,600 people.

The measure is part of postal reform legislation being considered by the Senate. It would reduce payments to certain recipients to 50 percent of their pre-disability wage. The current level is 75 percent if recipients have dependents or two-thirds if they don’t. Benefits also would fall from 75 percent to two-thirds for recipients younger than 65 who have dependents.


Reginald Gipson is a former Secret Service agent who is now on disability. (Courtesy of Reginald Gipson)

Among those excluded from the cuts would be recipients at retirement age or who have lost the use of two limbs or who are under full nursing care. People classified as fully disabled would not have their benefits cut. But Gipson, at age 44, does not fall into those categories.

“I will not be grandfathered in,” he said.

Yet his injuries are serious enough that he cannot work.

“It’s very disturbing,” he said of the legislation. “If this thing goes through, it’s going to financially affect my family. ” Gipson estimates he’d lose $800 to $1,000 a month. “It’s income that I cannot make up,” he said, adding that he, his wife and 11-year-old daughter might have to move from their Calvert County home.

The legislation is designed to rein in a workers’ comp program that sometimes results in injured workers who are well beyond retirement age receiving compensation payments greater than what they would get in retirement payments.

“It is not fair that federal or postal employees who work their entire careers retire with a lower and taxable benefit than do employees who remain on workers’ compensation past retirement age,” Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) told the Federal Diary. “Our bill would eliminate the incentive for beneficiaries to stay on workers’ compensation long after the age when they will never return to work. And it would bring benefit levels in line with what the majority of states offer their workers.”

But unlike other legislative changes that take effect at some point in the future, the bill could take away money from injured federal workers who have come to depend on it.

“It would make my life very, very difficult and unable to meet all my bills,” said a former Homeland Security law enforcement officer in Florida who suffers from work-related cancer. He declined to be identified by name, saying he feared retribution: “I know how the government works.”

“It’s a big pay cut for somebody,” he said. “I don’t see Congress cutting their pay.”

Not everyone in Congress wants to cut workers’ comp. Sen. Daniel K. Akaka (D-Hawaii) plans to offer an amendment that would strike the benefit reductions. “I am especially concerned that these provisions are retroactive and will change benefits for some employees who are already injured. We simply must not change the rules after the fact for disabled employees who were relying on the promise of these benefits,” he said Monday.

“This is part of the bargain we make with our employees.”

The House, which generally is less federal-worker-friendly than the Senate, has approved legislation that boosts benefits in certain cases. The Obama administration, however, favors changing what it considers excessive provisions in the current program.

“Computed at 75 percent tax-free, FECA benefits frequently exceed the employee’s pre-injury take-home pay,” Gary Steinberg, acting director the Labor Department’s Office of Workers’ Compensation Programs, told Congress last year.

But recipients say that the payments are based on salaries at the time of their injuries. Those payments include cost-of-living adjustments, but not other increases many workers depend on.

“I went out on the pay I was making in ’08,” Gipson said. “If I was still with the Secret Service, I’d probably be making $20,000” more with merit raises and overtime, particularly in a presidential election year when agents have candidates to protect.

“We’re being penalized for putting our lives [in danger] day in and day out,” he said. “Our families make a lot of sacrifices, and we thought the government was going to be there for us.”

Previous columns by Joe Davidson are available at wapo.st/
JoeDavidson
. Follow the Federal Diary on Twitter: @JoeDavidsonWP

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