By Frank Ferreri, August 14, 2023
Unless you’re one of a few lucky workers, chances are that, at times, work brings a little stress into your life.
While some workplace angst and frustration is a normal part of life, there are times when it becomes so severe that, under the Federal Employees’ Compensation Act, emotional stress constitutes a compensable injury.
Just how much stress does it take to support a workers’ compensation claim? To establish an emotional condition in the performance of duty, a claimant must submit:
- Factual evidence identifying an employment factor or incident alleged to have caused or contributed to her claimed emotional condition.
- Medical evidence establishing that she has a diagnosed emotional or psychiatric disorder.
- Rationalized medical opinion evidence establishing that the accepted compensable employment factors are causally related to the diagnosed emotional condition.
But, as the Employees’ Compensation Appeals Board explained in Lillian Cutler, 28 ECAB 125 (1976), when an injury or illness results from an employee’s feelings of job insecurity, fear of a reduction-in-force or her frustration from not being permitted to work in a particular environment, unhappiness with doing work, or frustration in not being given the work desired, or not holding a particular position, the injury or illness falls outside FECA’s coverage because it is found not to have arisen out of employment.
To get a sense of where ECAB currently stands on the issue, let’s break down some recent cases that address when stress turns into an occupational disease for Federal workers, and when it doesn’t.
C.R. and U.S. Postal Service, No. 21-0463 (ECAB April 28, 2023)
Alleged injury: A 46-year-old postmaster alleged that work stress caused him to develop kidney failure and suffer a minor stroke. The Office of Workers’ Compensation Programs denied the claim, finding the evidence was insufficient to establish a compensable employment factor.
Holding: ECAB sent the case back to OWCP, finding the postmaster established several employment factors, including:
- Addressing problems with hiring and maintaining adequate staff.
- Removing equipment from workspaces.
- Securing adequate areas to carry out work functions.
- Managing paperwork for posting and cutting mail delivery routes.
- Keeping workspaces in safe, clean, and comfortable physical condition.
- Addressing high work volume and deadlines, particularly with regard to handling Amazon mail.
However, ECAB found that to succeed on remand, the postmaster would need to submit rationalized medical evidence by a qualified physician and/or clinical psychologist establishing that he had a diagnosed condition causally related to an accepted compensable employment factor.
J.H. and Department of Homeland Security, No. 22-1086 (ECAB April 17, 2023)
Alleged injury: A 35-year-old law enforcement agent alleged he developed anxiety and stress due to a significant amount of physical and emotional stress within the work environment, which caused him to seek treatment. OWCP denied the claim, finding the agent had not established any compensable employment factors.
Holding: ECAB found OWCP improperly denied the agent’s request for reconsideration because he submitted evidence that:
- Management placed him in AWOL status even though he had previously apprised them of his absence.
- A supervisor admonished him but not others for addressing her by her first name.
- Management denied his request for a change in shift to facilitate his training.
- He was required to furnish medical documentation for all of his medical appointments when his coworkers were not required to do so.
ECAB remanded the case to OWCP.
B.T. and Department of Defense, Defense Commissary Agency, No. 20-1627 (ECAB January 11, 2023)
Alleged injury: A 32-year-old sales store checker, who was diagnosed with service-connected post-traumatic stress disorder, alleged she experienced undue stress and anxiety due to factors of her employment, related to, among other things, constant badgering, schedule changes, pettiness, micromanagement, and unprofessionalism. OWCP denied the claim, finding insufficient evidence that the checker’s medical condition arose during the course of employment and within the scope of compensable work factors.
Holding: The checker did not establish an emotional condition in the performance of duty because she did not submit evidence supporting her allegation she was overworked. Additionally, the checker’s allegations regarding the assignment of work and modification of work schedule, denial of her request for reasonable accommodation, termination of her federal service, the handling of leave requests and attendance matters, disciplinary matters, requests for medical documentation, and the filing of grievances and EEO complaints related to administrative or personnel management actions, and mere dislike or disagreement with certain supervisory actions would not be compensable absent error or abuse on the part of the supervisor.
Similarly, ECAB found that the checker’s allegations of harassment were “mere perceptions” and not compensable under FECA.
W.J. and U.S. Postal Service, No. 20-1226 (ECAB January 6, 2023)
Alleged injury: A 57-year-old letter carrier alleged he developed anxiety, depression, and a sleep disorder due to factors of his Federal employment. He asserted that multiple managerial changes created a hostile workplace where he encountered disparaging remarks and constant humiliation and harassment over work methods. OWCP denied the claim.
Holding: The carrier established overwork as a compensable factor of employment based on:
- Multiple instances where management confronted him, questioned his time estimates, and the validity of his employment injury and instructed him to ignore his work restrictions to complete his route for that day.
- Management would complain about not having enough coverage and ask the carrier complete his work without assistance.
- The carrier was asked on multiple occasions to work multiple routes due to an understaffing issue.
- The carrier worked auxiliary time for various reasons despite multiple Form CA-17s suggesting that he only work for eight hours.
The carrier also established compensable employment factors with respect to allegations of harassment based partly on an incident in which the carrier’s supervisor stressed him out to the point where he had an anxiety attack and was unable to complete his work for the day.
ECAB remanded the case to OWCP.
P.G. and U.S. Postal Service, No. 22-0259 (ECAB January 5, 2023)
Alleged injury: A 51-year-old rural carrier alleged that she developed post-traumatic stress order due to factors of her federal employment, including ongoing harassment by a coworker that was alleged to have included obscene hand gestures, getting in the carrier’s face and saying something that could not be understood, and approaching the carrier and saying, “When I talked to you about the hen house and you got me in trouble … what I was talking about were chickens.” OWCP denied the claim.
Holding: The carrier established a compensable employment factor, and OWCP did not review the medical evidence. “Verbal altercations and difficult relationships with coworkers, when sufficiently detailed and supported by the record, may constitute compensable factors of employment,” ECAB wrote in remanding the case to OWCP.
Next month, we’ll look at five more cases. [email protected]