U.S. Investigation Found Postal Service Beset With Problems in Workplace

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Shootings by postal workers have become frequent occurrences in the past decade, prompting a congressional investigation last year that concluded the U.S. Postal Service is beset with problems, some job-connected and others involving unsuitable employees.

Since 1983, 34 people have been killed and 20 wounded in 12 post office-related shootings around the nation, including the attacks Thursday in Dana Point and Dearborn, Mich. Job-related tensions were said to be a factor in the shootings.

Both of Thursday's shootings involved postal workers angry at their employers, although the suspect in the Dana Point attack, Mark Richard Hilbun, 38, also reportedly had psychiatric problems and a romantic obsession with a co-worker.

After the 1991 killing of four postal supervisors by a fired worker in Michigan, Congress called for an investigation into the Postal Service's hiring and management procedures. That probe, completed last summer, urged tougher employment screening as well as better training of supervisors.

Former Postmaster Gen. Anthony M. Frank last year agreed that changes were needed. He said that, too often, the attitude of some postal supervisors is: "I ate dirt for 20 years, and now it's your turn to eat dirt."

Postal Service officials, in rebuttal, said their agency does a good job, despite an oppressive and ever-growing workload. And some employees at the Dana Point post office described the work atmosphere as generally good.

"I would rate it pretty high as a congenial place to work--better than other post offices I have worked at," said John Gargan, a letter carrier. Hilbun "was just a wacko."

The Postal Service is the nation's largest civilian work force, with about 729,000 employees. By federal law, the agency must break even, and Postal Service officials said that it has become increasingly tough as costs rise and mail volume escalates.

Union officials said the tremendous workload has translated into unbearable pressure. "People don't realize the stress postal workers suffer," said Norberta Fullen, secretary-treasurer of a union that represents 7,500 letter carriers in the Los Angeles-Orange County area. "They work under tremendous time stress. They have time limits that are down to minutes and seconds, and they're also some bad supervisors who make things worse."

Postal officials also said that despite the financial squeeze, the agency is continually trying to reduce job tensions and screen out people who may resort to violence.

But some members of Congress said Thursday that more needs to be done.

Rep. William L. Clay (D-Mo.), chairman of the House Post Office and Civil Service Committee, took note Thursday of his committee's investigation and its recommendations to improve management training, end the abuse of disciplinary procedures, increase security at post offices and handle grievances efficiently, among others. Faster action on implementing those proposals is needed, he said.

"This senseless loss of life must stop," Clay said.

In the most heinous instance of postal violence, part-time letter carrier Patrick Henry Sherrill killed 14 people on Aug. 14, 1986, in the Edmond, Okla., post office before taking his life. Sherrill had a history of work problems and faced being fired.

Clay's House committee probe was begun after the Nov. 14, 1991, post office shooting in Royal Oak, Mich. Thomas McIlvane, a fired postal worker, killed four supervisors and wounded five other postal employees before killing himself.

Congressional investigators found that some Postal Service supervisors misuse their authority "to harass, coerce and intimidate employees," he said. They also found a "paramilitary style of management within the Postal Service," according to Clay.

U.S. Postmaster Gen. Marvin Runyon said Thursday that the Postal Service wants "to assure the safety of our employees, including tighter screening of job applicants and joint involvement with our unions and our management associations on improving the climate in our workplace.

"Most important, our policy on violence in the workplace focuses on not tolerating any form of violence or harassment, on reducing stress, and on treating every employee with dignity and respect," he said.

But critics of the Postal Service, including union officials, said Thursday that management still has a long way to go.

Fullen, the secretary-treasurer of Branch 1100 of the National Assn. of Letter Carriers, based in Santa Ana, said some postal supervisors make unreasonable demands.

"In order to try to look good, some supervisors are pushing (postal workers) beyond what a person can do," she said. "They're always on your back, pushing you to do more."

Tom Fahey, a spokesman for the American Postal Workers Union, based in Washington, said his group is "investigating the shootings in Dearborn and Dana Point, and while we don't know the specific issues, it's obvious that both of these reflect the labor-management issue in the Postal Service."

Fahey called for an independent, non-governmental probe of the Postal Service, saying that last year's congressional investigation did not result in significant action.

"It was just another investigation, and nothing changed," Fahey said. "Until there is an independent look--until the best minds of industrial relations get together on this problem--there's going to be no solution of the poisonous atmosphere between labor and management in the Postal Service."

Times staff writers April Jackson and David Reyes contributed to this story.

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