US Postal Service censured for forcing out disabled staff

By on 30/04/2018 | Updated on 24/09/2020
Disabled and injured staff across the retail and delivery operations of the USA’s postal service found themselves pushed back into roles that took no account of their conditions.

Officials at the US Postal Service (USPS) deliberately fostered a hostile working environment as the agency tried to force out tens of thousands of staff injured on the job, the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has said in a final ruling – and these employees may now be entitled to compensation.

The EEOC found that USPS withdrew reasonable accommodations for injured-on-duty (IOD) employees, subjected them to disability-based harassment, and allowed unauthorized people to access employees’ confidential medical records.

The agency’s health and human resources manager and Workers Compensation Office director ran an initiative, the National Reassessment Program (NRP), ostensibly designed to cut costs by eliminating non-productive ‘make work’ – jobs with no value to the organisation. But NRP’s real purpose was to move employees with IOD status back to full duty in their previous jobs or out of the business and onto federal disability benefits, the EEOC said.

Hidden purposes

The officials’ intent was laid bare by “extensive email trails” about goals to reduce IOD rolls by the tens of thousands, the EEOC said.

“As a policy, the NRP was an instrument that effectively deprived thousands of people of their livelihoods because of the need to work in modified positions,” the commission said in its ruling.

The EEOC ruled that any employees evaluated under the NRP during the period 5 May 2006 to 1 July 2011 may put in a claim for damages. The American Postal Workers Union estimates that may total more than 130,000 people.

Casual discrimination

Discrimination and hostility permeated the agency, the ruling found. The health and human resources manager reported in one early email exchange that 338 employees had left, exceeding agency goals. The postmaster general replied: “338 it is and welcome to Walmart” – referring to an employer many staff saw as less desirable.

Comments from employees in a PowerPoint presentation included “good riddance”, “look for some miracle recoveries”, “see you bums at Walmart”, and “have people sitting around the office doing minor jobs; makes you want to puke.”

Lessons for others

Jeremy Wright, a partner at Kator, Parks, Weiser & Harris, one of the firms that represented workers in the case, told Global Government Forum: “I think EEOC was very motivated by this overall culture that did not seem to respect the contributions disabled workers can bring to an organisation.”

Wright noted that other agencies have been shying away from NRP-type programmes, even before the EEOC decision became final. “This particular programme run at the Postal Service was, as far as we understand, the first of its kind in a big, broad, organised fashion,” he said. “We became aware that other agencies were looking at it as a model to work from.”

“But our lawsuit, even before we won the case, stemmed that tide, and we haven’t seen implementation of any other big broad programme like this at any other federal agency,” Wright said.

A USPS spokesman declined to comment on the decision, citing the ongoing compensation process.

Misled approach

Although NRP ostensibly targeted ‘make work’, many of the IOD employees’ tasks turned out to be essential for timely mail delivery and processing, EEOC said.

“Other employees had to step in and take over, which left many facilities short-staffed,” the commission said. “In turn, this led to slow-downs and bottlenecks in delivery operations.”

The programme did not even save costs, EEOC said. Between the 2007 and 2011 financial years, workers compensation costs increased from US$880m to US$3.7bn.

A long wait for the cheque in the post

The ruling comes as the White House puts increasing pressure on USPS over its finances. Earlier this month, president Donald Trump established a task force to evaluate the agency’s finances and operations.

The U.S. Government Accountability Office lists USPS’s financial viability on its “high-risk” list. In the 2016 financial year the agency reported a net loss of US$5.6bn. A 2006 law requires USPS to prefund health benefits for current and future retirees, at an annual cost of $5.4 billion to $5.8 billion over the last decade, according to GAO.

About Tamar Wilner

Tamar Wilner is a Dallas-based journalist and researcher who writes about public policy and the media. She's written extensively on energy, the environment, urban planning and small business for trade publications in the US and UK, and contributes regularly to the Columbia Journalism Review. Find her at @tamarwilner.


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