People throughout our state have rallied and stepped up in so many ways over the last few months. So many good things have happened amidst so much devastation. Teachers are going above and beyond, using Zoom and Skype to engage students and ensure that each of them continues to receive an excellent education. City and county laborers are working unusual and creative shifts to keep the public safe on roads and in buildings while limiting their exposure. Corrections officers are risking their lives in the state jail and prison system to keep the inmates and staff safe and healthy. The call center employees at ODJFS are working tirelessly to process as many unemployment claims as possible so benefits can get to Ohio’s displaced workers as early as possible.
Budget Cuts Are Coming
While hearing these stories brings hope, and immense pride for the resilience of our communities, the rising unemployment numbers and tightening budgets are sobering reminders that as important as these jobs are, they are not as secure as they once were. The reality is that most public employees generally have good job security. But with everything happening, our state, city, and county governments are going to have to do something to account for the deficits. That means budget cuts, and while leaders say they don’t want to cut jobs, it’s inevitable. Kent State announced a 20% operating budget reduction for the upcoming school year, confirming that this process “will require layoffs and job abolishments.” The University of Akron recently announced significant budget cuts. Ohio University announced 140 job cuts. And of course, Governor DeWine announced a state-wide budget cut of $775,000,000.00.
How Public Employees Can Protect Themselves
When the job cuts start coming, senior leaders spearheading the cuts won’t have to worry about their job security …they’re going to have a job. The people who should be worried are the workers in vulnerable departments that are subject to belt-tightening. If those workers are operating under a collective bargaining agreement, job security or job cuts might be very mechanical and indiscriminate. Sadly, we don’t know how the leaders in the schools, cities, counties, and state will decide who to cut or which departments to reduce funding to, which means that your typically reliable income is at risk. Tens of thousands of people could lose their jobs, and they really have no one protecting them. Possibly the most at-risk group to suffer from job cuts are the workers with medical problems preventing them from finding other comparable work. If you or someone you know is a public employee who falls into this group, it’s important to know what you can do to help yourself and your family. Here are three easy steps you can take now to stay protected:
- Know Your Options – Contact OPERS, STRS, or SERS and ask for a copy of your annual statement. Do you know how much income you will receive if you are found disabled? A basic understanding of what is at stake is critical to making a good financial decision for you and those you support. With this knowledge in hand, you will be able to start calculating a new budget and going through a “trial run” to see how much you will need to cut if you transition to disability. You might be surprised at how well you can operate on your disability income if your case is approved. Did you know that you do not have to resign your position and stop receiving wages until after you receive a decision awarding your disability benefit? This means you are in control, not your employer, and certainly not your health condition.
- Talk with Your Doctor – An application for disability retirement benefits requires a completed report and certification that you are unable to perform your last public job. Ask your doctor if he or she is willing to fill out a short form supporting your disability application. Physicians are not excited about filling out disability forms, but in the case of public employees, the forms are required. If your doctor agrees that you are incapable of performing the job you last worked for your public employer, then he or she should be able to fill out your attending physician report. Be sure to explain to your doctor that you are not asking for a certification that you are incapable of all work. State disability programs initially only require certification that you cannot do your last job you performed in the public sector.
- Request or Download Disability Application From Your Retirement System – OPERS, STRS, and STRS are still accepting disability applications. Did you know that you can apply while still receiving your full pay? It is true. Asking for a disability application does not mean that you have to quit your job. In fact, your employer will not even know that you downloaded or requested an application. Your employer is not notified about your disability application until you have submitted a complete application, and, even then, they can’t take adverse action against you. It is best to get the application in your hands early so you can think through the answers instead of rushing to apply as soon as possible.
Have a Plan
Now is the time to focus and make decisions that put you in the best possible situation to succeed. Right now, many public employees are not working but are still receiving paid leave and healthcare. Right now, many employees are suffering from some kind of health problem that is impacting their ability to return to work or to get another job. If you are struggling with a health condition and the thoughts of returning to work or finding another job seem overwhelming, a disability retirement benefit might be appropriate for you.
Beat the Rush
Although being on paid administrative leave is great in the short-term, what happens if the city, county, state, or public school system cannot bring you back soon? Eventually, that paid leave will run out. If you plan ahead and apply before others submit their applications, you might have an answer on your disability retirement application from OPERS, STRS, or SERS before your paid leave ends.
By taking the appropriate steps to determine whether a disability application is right for you, you strengthen your chances of prevailing. If you get things moving now while everyone else is waiting for the economy to open back up fully, you are “jumping the line” ahead of everyone is not asked to return to work. As Ohio’s economy continues to open up carefully, people will realize that they are not being recalled to work or simply cannot get back to work, and will be filing disability applications. Getting ahead of them will ensure timely processing of your claim and, possibly, receiving an answer before your paid administrative leave ends. It could be the opportunity that you need.