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Workers Say Postal Jobs Take a Terrible Toll; Many Blame Stress on Hard-Driving Bosses

Times Staff Writer

Two weeks before John Merlin Taylor went on a shooting rampage at the Escondido Post Office, another veteran San Diego-area letter carrier hanged himself in Ramona.

Like Taylor, whom colleagues described as “mellow and nice as could be,” postal workers said William Camp, 62, was “very well-liked and very quiet.”

But, on July 28, the retired mailman slipped a noose around his neck in his garage. One of his four sons found the body.

Camp’s colleagues said they could understand--if not condone--his actions. They understood the forces that drove Camp to take his own life: it was the U.S. Postal Service, they said.

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Critics of the post office in San Diego say managers often treat employees in ways that add immeasurably to the stress of jobs that are, by their nature, stressful because of ever-increasing demands on productivity.

Although it would be unfair to blame San Diego Postmaster Margaret Sellers for the deaths of local postal employees--after Thursday’s shooting, Taylor was described as a model employee who had expressed few gripes about his work--critics say that Sellers and her managers often demand that employees meet unreasonable production goals and subject them to harassment and pressure on the job.

Others Have Died

Sellers’ spokesmen say the claims of harassment and pressure are often exaggerated, but acknowledge that post office work can be stressful.

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Camp’s death was the fourth suicide of a postal worker in San Diego County this year--and there has been at least one other in years past.

On March 25, in a highly publicized incident, a 44-year-old letter carrier named Donald Mace walked into the lobby of the Poway Post Office, put a .38-caliber revolver to his head, and pulled the trigger.

Before he died, Mace had mailed a rambling suicide letter to the news media complaining about his medical and financial problems and telling of harassment by his supervisors.

Sue Reed, director of field operations for the San DiegoPost Office here, said Mace lost his home to the IRS and had other personal problems, and that his suicide wasn’t directly connected to stress at work.

On March 23, postal clerk Hector Rubio, 40, hanged himself with a leather belt at his Pacific Beach home. His wife, Barbara, found the body. A 20-year veteran of the Postal Service, Rubio was said to have had drinking problems.

In mid-June, Jay Fanum, a letter carrier since 1980 at the Encinitas Post Office, killed himself in his Vista home. Postal Service officials said Fanum was going through employee counseling at the time of his death and indicated that his problems may have been marital.

Several years ago, postal clerk Hector Torres, who colleagues said was having problems at work, jumped to his death off the Coronado Bridge.

The suicides have generated strong criticism of the Postal Service in San Diego and focused attention on employee violence and stress-related problems among workers in the sprawling postal agency. There are about 6,600 postal employees in San Diego County.

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In the past decade, dozens of people--ranging from postmasters to carriers--have been murdered or wounded by their co-workers at postal facilities around the country. In the past 3 1/2 years, the Postal Service has recorded 355 instances in which employees assaulted supervisors and 183 in which supervisors assaulted employees.

Agency Concedes Problem

An untold number nationwide have killed themselves.

Critics of the Postal Service say that, in its quest to cope with volume that last year totaled 160 billion pieces of mail, the agency has extracted a human toll on its employees and their families.

The agency, while conceding there is a problem, nonetheless maintains that employee violence--from suicide to murder--is no greater in the Postal Service than in other sectors of the business world.

“We don’t have any more or any less problems than face society today, whether we’re talking about drugs or just plain bad temper,” said Lou Eberhardt, a Postal Service spokesman in Washington.

Once an official part of the federal government called the Post Office Department, the agency was reorganized in 1971 as a semi-private company called the U.S. Postal Service. Most of its employees are unionized, but are forbidden to strike.

Faced with mounting expenses and declining revenues, the Postal Service is trying to increase productivity while keeping costs down. Some union leaders complain that, in striving to meet these goals, supervisors are placing added pressures on workers, resulting in work speed-ups and employee complaints--and occasionally workplace violence.

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Three years ago, the nation was stunned when part-time mailman Patrick Sherrill killed 14 co-workers, wounded six others and then committed suicide at the post office in Edmond, Okla. Sherrill, a man with an unstable personal history, had often talked about getting revenge on his bosses, who considered his work unsatisfactory.

The Postal Service said events like the massacre in Edmond could happen anywhere in society, contending that people with problems in their personal lives often will transfer it to their work.

But the Edmond rampage was not an isolated incident.

A mail sorter held his ex-girlfriend hostage and shot three people during a 13-hour siege at the main New Orleans post office last December. One co-worker lost an eye in the attack.

Since 1983, there have been repeated murders and, in one case, a beating committed by postal employees against co-workers or supervisors in Chelsea, Mass.; Dallas; New York City; Anniston, Ala., and Atlanta.

Wore Black Arm Bands

In San Diego, the suicide of William Camp created such an uproar among his co-workers in El Cajon that last week some workers wore black armbands in his memory.

“Management didn’t like it, but they did it anyway,” said a female postal clerk.

Camp, colleagues said, had loved working for the Postal Service. But, after amassing 2,500 hours of sick leave, they said, he was reprimanded for taking a sick day off just before he left on vacation earlier this year.

“When he came back from vacation, they started hassling him, so he retired,” said John Worthy, a union representative.

Camp’s condition deteriorated, they said. He tried to starve himself and lost 30 to 40 pounds.

A couple of weeks later, Camp hanged himself.

At the El Cajon Post Office where Camp had worked, there was a bomb threat Aug. 1. Police evacuated the building for 15 minutes.

Sellers’ spokesman, Glenn Krouch, acknowledged in a telephone interview that many critics blame Sellers’ policies for the rash of violent incidents, including suicides, that have plagued postal employees in the county recently.

“We’ve heard the criticism and heard it in a number of different lines,” Krouch said. “Margaret is very upset by things like that. She’s a very personable person. Employees are our top resource and asset. We’re definitely a service organization run by people.”

Sellers could not be reached for comment late Thursday.

Preston Chipps, a U.S. Department of Labor certified counselor who has worked with San Diego-area postal employees since 1981, said that Sellers’ management style and policies have led to countless incidents of perceived harassment in local post offices.

“Any organization reflects the policy of the person at the top,” Chipps said. “Margaret Sellers is a much-hated person because of her policies.”

According to Chipps, the postal service in San Diego has “an unwritten policy” of discouraging employees from filing and pursuing disability claims when they are injured on the job. Chipps said this practice contributes to the stress that overburdened postal employees feel.

“Stress sometimes makes normal people dangerous,” said Chipps. “Sellers’ managers know what they’re doing. I’ve been told there is a policy to discourage people from filing and pursuing claims by putting them in situations that are distasteful and where they are made examples to others.”

Victim of Harassment

Jack Adams, a postal employee since 1974, was fired in 1981 after being disabled on the job. According to Adams, he suffered from carpal tunnel syndrome--a painful wrist problem--early in 1981, then underwent surgery and rehabilitation for a few months before returning to work.

Adams was eventually rehired, but he said that, since his return, he has been a victim of harassment and petty disciplinary action.

“I went back to work, and, after 30 minutes, the supervisor walked out and said they had made a mistake,” Adams said. “They told me I was fired for inability to do the job I was hired for and walked me out the door. They said there was no job at the Postal Service that I could do.”

After three years of writing letters to congressmen, senators, the Postal Service and the President, Adams was rehired on a part-time basis Nov. 19, 1984.

“One of the supervisors told me that the only reason I was rehired was because ‘Washington shoved you down our throats,’ ” he said. “The stress I was under was incredible.”

In 1986, Adams said, his supervisors made him a “scale watcher.” He was forced to sit on a stool and watch as sacks and pouches of mail were weighed throughout the day. Adams said he was not required to record the weights.

“I’d spend my entire workday watching sacks and pouches get weighed,” he said. “That’s all I would do. I just couldn’t stand it there anymore. I started doing odd jobs, doing small things that needed to be done. I was humiliated.”

This spawned another form of disciplinary action against him, said Adams. His supervisor confined him to a 6-by-8-foot area for six months at the main post office in San Diego and forbade him from stepping outside the marked area.

“I had to write on a pad the times that I broke for lunch, when I returned and when I left and returned from the restroom,” Adams said.

Norman Kersh, whose brother-in-law, Donald Mace, committed suicide in March, said the Postal Service wants to classify employees who commit violent acts as “out-of-the-way incidents.”

“But it’s happening all over the country,” Kersh said, “because people who run post offices don’t care. They don’t have feelings for people who work in the post office.”

Times staff writer Lori Grange contributed to this report.


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