The Ohio Public Employees Retirement System (OPERS) does not maintain a list of “acceptable” or “recognized” disabilities that qualify OPERS participants for injury or illness benefits. Instead, the program uses standard eligibility criteria and a battery of physical function tests to determine whether someone can receive payments because their health makes them unable to work.

Who is eligible to apply for OPERS disability benefits in Ohio?

Full- and part-time employees of Ohio state agencies and many city and county employees can enroll in OPERS. This includes faculty and staff at state-funded community colleges and universities, as well as police, firefighters, public hospital employees, and emergency medical technicians paid with public funds. Public school teachers and K-12 support staff like custodians and bus drivers have their own retirement systems that operate similarly to OPERS.

The OPERS disability attorneys with Agee Clymer Mitchell & Portman offer more details about basic eligibility here. One important technicality to always keep in mind is that most people can only qualify for OPERS disability benefits after making 60 months of payroll contributions to the retirement plan. Law enforcement and fire personnel vest for disability immediately, and people can buy service time credits early in their public service careers by voluntarily increasing their OPERS deductions.

The other major OPERS disability benefits eligibility issue concerns the plan’s relationship to Social Security. Individuals who have worked in the private sector for a year or longer must first apply for Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) benefits because OPERS is considered subordinate to the federal program in Ohio. The relationships between OPERS and other Ohio state worker retirement and disability plans is more complex, so consulting with a knowledgeable Columbus-based disability lawyer is recommended for someone covered by multiple public pension plans.

How does OPERS determine if an applicant is disabled?

People who meet the basic eligibility criteria for OPERS disability benefits and can prove they are not receiving SSDI payments must complete a standard OPERS application packet. A key document in that packet is the DR-4, or employer report. The form includes ratings of the degrees to which the applicant must be able to perform certain physical activities in order to do his or her job.

While the OPERS Disability Board that approves or declines benefits wants to see medical records and statements from the applicant describing his or her disability, board members place great stock in the employer’s assessment of the necessity to do each of the following things in order to work on a daily basis:

  • Low Lift (floor to knuckle)
  • Mid Lift (knuckle to shoulder)
  • Full Lift (floor to shoulder)
  • Carrying
  • Pushing
  • Walking
  • Climbing
  • Balance
  • Stoop
  • Kneeling
  • Crouching
  • Crawling
  • Reaching (immediate)
  • Reaching (overhead)
  • Handling
  • Fingering
  • Feeling
  • Sitting
  • Standing

A disabling injury or illness does not need to occur at work or be in any way related to the applicant’s employment, but the condition does have to be considered long-term (i.e., persisting for 12 months or longer) and to substantially limit the applicant’s ability to perform actions that are essential to his or her job. Even though they are not listed above, loss of sight, loss of hearing, or loss of speech would almost always meet the definition of a disabling condition under OPERS rules.

When OPERS disability benefits are awarded, the recipient must provide evidence of continuing medical treatment or ongoing rehabilitation aimed at returning him or her to work. Under OPERS, disability payments are intended to be temporary, covering only the period the recipient requires to return to health.

If you have additional questions about OPERS disability benefits, need help preparing an application, or find it necessary to appeal a denial of benefits, contact the Columbus offices of Agee Clymer Mitchell & Portman to let us know how we can be of assistance. You can schedule a free, confidential, no-obligation consultation with one of our experienced disability attorneys by calling (614) 678-3318 or completing this online contact form.