Postal Peace in Our Time? Management Has Programs to Defuse

                                  Tensions, but Labor Calls for More


                                                 By Kirstin Downey Grimsley

                                                Washington Post Staff Writer

                                           Thursday, January 15, 1998; Page C01


      In offices around America, the phrase "going postal" has become a shorthand for stressed-out workers who lose

      their cool -- and, in extreme cases, start shooting. There's even a new video game called Postal, in which players

      take aim at police, pedestrians, churchgoers and a marching band -- while a woman screams in the background,

      "He's going postal!"


      Two recent instances of mailroom mayhem illustrate why the U.S. Postal Service has given rise to this workplace



      Four weeks ago, in Milwaukee, a postal worker who had been denied a transfer to day shift suddenly snapped

      around midnight. He pulled out a semiautomatic weapon and began firing -- murdering a co-worker with whom he

      had been feuding and shooting his supervisor in the eye, before killing himself.


      One week later, on Christmas Eve, in Denver, a fired postal worker came back to the mail-processing facility where

      he worked, dressed in camouflage and body armor and armed with a shotgun. He took seven of his former

      co-workers hostage for nearly 10 hours, before finally releasing them unharmed.


      These two incidents are, unfortunately, part of a long history of employee violence at the Postal Service. Since 1986,

      35 postal employees have been murdered by colleagues or killed themselves in 10 separate incidents across the

      country. No other company, including organizations nearly as large as the Postal Service, is believed to have

      experienced any similar level of violence by co-workers.


      Postal violence has even surfaced in the Washington region, where the Postal Service employs about 22,000

      people. In January 1996, the manager of a large mail-processing facility near Dulles International Airport became so

      enraged because of personal problems that she fired a gun into an unoccupied car owned by one of her

      subordinates. She was convicted in a Fairfax County court of destroying private property and carrying a concealed

      weapon and was fired by the Postal Service.


      Postal Service executives said workplace homicides, though tragic, are not unusually common, given their large

      labor force. They also said some incidents involved domestic disputes that spilled over into work.


      "We don't think we're excessive in terms of our experience of violence in the workplace," said Larry Anderson, the

      Postal Service's manager of safety and workplace assistance. "We think these incidents are a reflection of society at



      Anderson said the Postal Service has instituted one of the most extensive workplace violence-prevention programs

      in the country, providing specialized training and counseling to its employees nationwide -- and he sees some

      signs that conditions are improving. "There's a lot we've done, but there's more we can do," he said.


      Agency employees are being unjustly tarred, some say. "It's an unfair characterization," said consultant Dennis L.

      Johnson, who has helped the agency develop its workplace violence prevention programs. "Workplace violence is a

      problem for the American corporate landscape, and not just a postal problem."


      Yet the level of violence at the Postal Service does seem unusual -- especially compared with similar private-sector

      workplaces. United Parcel Service, for example, has about one-third as many workers as the Postal Service, but it

      has experienced just one murder by a co-worker in the past two decades, when one mechanic killed another in

      1996 in a company parking lot. Memphis-based Federal Express Corp., which has 138,000 employees, has never

      had a single co-worker murder since it was founded in the early '70s.


      Some clues about what's causing the mailroom strife can be found in a report released in October by the General

      Accounting Office. The GAO said persistent labor problems have "generally contributed" to tense working conditions

      in postal facilities. A similar report in 1994 described chaotic, adversarial conditions in many mail processing

      plants, with labor and management sharply at odds.


      Since 1994, says the GAO, the number of workplace grievances within the Postal Service has jumped, climbing to

      almost 90,000 in fiscal 1996 from 65,000 in fiscal 1994. Union leaders have blamed the problems on poor

      management; Postmaster General Marvin Runyon has said the unions have been a roadblock to improvements.


      Postal workers themselves point to job stress. They cite the unrelenting avalanche of mail arriving every day, the

      loss of autonomy due to automation. They say these factors -- combined with what they view as rigid and insensitive

      management -- make the post office a pressure cooker that invites outbursts.


      "It's scary," said a 35-year-old female postal worker in Fairfax County, who asked not to be named because she said

      workers had been told not to discuss the incidents with the media. "Since I heard about these murders in the news,

      I have been wondering if I should go out and buy a bulletproof vest to wear to work."


      The American Postal Workers Union, one of four unions that represents postal workers, wrote to Postmaster

      General Runyon this month to express alarm over the recent events, and to ask him to help fix a workplace union

      officials described as "fundamentally flawed." They called the postal agency's efforts to fix the problem "empty

      rhetoric" amid a continuing "authoritarian management mentality."


      The latest explosion of postal violence comes at a time when the agency appeared to be improving its performance.

      The agency has been self-supporting since 1982 and receives no tax dollars. Over the past three years, it has

      generated $4.7 billion in profit, which it has used to pay down long-standing debts. Meanwhile, mail-delivery

      performance has been good as well, with overnight mail delivery recently achieving a record 92 percent score.


      The Merrifield center in Northern Virginia is an example of the high-speed, high-tech workplaces that are replacing

      the old post offices. Housed in a cavernous 500,000-square-foot warehouse, it processes nearly 5 million pieces of

      mail each day, hauled in by a fleet of 77 trucks and tractor-trailers. Massive, computerized sorting machines handle

      the flow, and almost 90 percent of the process is automated, with postal workers overseeing and monitoring the

      activity. The small parcel bundle sorter, for example, churns out 4,000 pieces of mail per hour.


      But the Postal Service's new efficiency may carry a steep price, some experts said.


      "If you do a good job, what's there when you come back? Just more mail," said Steve Albrecht, coauthor of the book

      "Ticking Bombs: Defusing Violence in the Workplace." Albrecht noted that the agency is filled with military veterans

      who have adopted a rigid management style -- sometimes even measuring the length of workers' strides to make

      sure they are walking efficiently.


      The Postal Service is working hard to find solutions, said Anderson and others at the agency. The agency has

      tightened up the prescreening of potential employees and established a "zero tolerance" policy for workers who

      threaten others or bring firearms onto postal property. A new program will teach supervisors how to fire poor

      performers gently, so they don't become violent. "We're looking to see how to better manage the process so the

      person let go lets go of us," Anderson said.




      Here are other shooting incidents before the two most recent ones in December.


      Sept. 2, 1997: Jesus Antonio Tamayo, a 21-year postal veteran, leaves his counter at a Miami Beach post office, and

      shoots and critically wounds his ex-wife and a friend, who were waiting in line. Tamayo, 64, then kills himself.


      Dec. 19, 1996: Charles E. Jennings, 41, an 18-year Postal Service veteran, shoots a supervisor to death in a post

      office parking lot in Las Vegas.


      July 9, 1995: Bruce William Clark walks up to his boss in a postal processing center in City of Industry, Calif., pulls a

      handgun from a paper bag and shoots him to death.


      March 21, 1995: Christopher Green, 29, a former postal worker burdened with "a mountain of debt," kills four people

      and wounds another during a holdup at the Montclair, N.J., post office.


      May 6, 1993: (two separate incidents)


      Postal worker Larry Jasion kills one and wounds two at the post office garage in Dearborn, Mich., before killing



      Fired postal employee Mark Richard Hilbun kills his mother, then walks into a post office near Los Angeles and

      shoots two workers, killing one.


      Nov. 14, 1991: Fired postal worker Thomas McIlvane kills four supervisors and wounds five employees at a post

      office in Royal Oak, Mich., and then kills himself.


      Oct. 11, 1991: Joseph M. Harris, a fired postal worker, kills a former supervisor and her boyfriend at their home in

      Wayne, N.J., then kills two mail handlers as they arrive for work.


      Aug. 10, 1989: Postal worker John Merlin Taylor of Escondido, Calif., shoots and kills his wife at their home, then

      shoots and kills two colleagues and wounds another before killing himself at the Orange Glen post office.


      Aug. 20, 1986: Patrick Henry Sherrill, a part-time letter carrier in Edmond, Okla., kills 14 people in the post office

      there before taking his own life.


      SOURCES: Associated Press, news reports


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