Waiting for Goodman

Want to try Steve Goodman's postal job? There's nothing to it.

Stephen Goodman is a hapless victim of the U.S. Postal Service's Neanderthal personnel policies, another cog worn down and abused by an agency with a reputation for treating its career servers with the same amount of common sense found in Alice in Wonderland.

Either that, or he is the employee from hell.
As a result of various injuries and maladies--some suffered on the job, others discovered away from it--Goodman is, to put it mildly, unproductive. He works an average of approximately four minutes each hour during his 7 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. shift. The rest of the time he sits at a desk and stares into space--that is, when he manages to stay awake. Even he admits that his 240 seconds of hourly labor is unessential and meaningless.

"A lot of people think I'm a lunatic," concedes Goodman, who earns about $36,000 a year plus bonuses. "But from my perspective, I'm being deprived of the dignity of working, not to mention being subjected to a certain amount of ridicule and shame."

Working for the post office, Goodman says today, "was the answer to my prayers." Still, it must have seemed like an improbability thirty years ago, when the Long Island native graduated from the Ivy League's Dartmouth College with an honors degree in psychology.

From there Goodman took a meandering route to graduate school, earning a master's degree in the same subject from the University of Michigan in 1975. But he managed only a handful of years counseling adolescents and working as a probation officer before he says he succumbed to career burnout.

"I left the field thinking it would only be for a while," Goodman says. "But then years went by. What I really wanted was a job where I could leave my troubles behind in my off hours, as well as a job where I wasn't selling my soul."

Goodman's search for a satisfying career took some wide detours, however. In the late 1970s, for instance, "I lived in a forest outside of Santa Cruz in a tent for about three years, mostly listening to the birds," he says. "I was in the woods with about a dozen other like-minded, spiritually seeking people."

In 1981 he followed his then-girlfriend to Denver and worked a series of more unsatisfying jobs--flower deliverer, cook, home health aide, lifeguard, phone solicitor. Then, in 1987, he took the postal exam, passed and began work as a mail handler.

Not only did Goodman feel the job met his soul-saving requirements, but, he adds, "my income tripled after my first year there. I was making enough money to live like a forty-year-old rather than an eighteen-year-old." Seven years later, however, in July 1994, "I noticed that my hands were tingly and getting numb," he says.

Repetitive-strain injuries are nothing new at the post office. This spring the Occupational Safety and Health Administration cited Denver's Terminal Annex station for its delivery bar coder. The federal workplace investigators determined that the machine, which sorts about 35,000 pieces of mail per hour, contributed to workers' shoulder and back strains from repetitive motion.

It wasn't the first time that a local Postal Service facility had been cited for unsafe machines: OSHA found the same problem in 1994 at another station, at East 53rd Avenue and Quebec. (Because the Postal Service is a federal agency, it cannot be fined by another government agency. However, it agreed to fix the problem by the end of April.)

"Working at the post office almost always involves grasping," Goodman explains. "And it's almost always repetitive."

By August 1994, Goodman's physician confirmed that he had carpal tunnel syndrome. Two months later, his bosses accepted the diagnosis, and Goodman was given a break on the amount of weight he had to lift, as well as an extra two hours' worth of breaks each shift.

Goodman's restricted schedule continued through May 1995, when, he says, his physician discovered that, despite the limited work duty, his hand functions had gotten worse. Goodman says he wasn't surprised by the new findings. "What would have been required to relieve my symptoms completely would've been a quick vacation, a break from my work," he reasons.

This time the doctor recommended that Goodman not use his hands at all. "So," he recalls, "the post office had to find a job where I didn't use my hands repetitively. And there are damned few. It's not like selling suits at Macy's."

Eventually Goodman's bosses found him work. He describes it: "Basically, I reported to work at 10:30 p.m., at which point there was nothing for me to do until about 2:30, so I sat around. At 2:30 I'd go to various mail-sorting machines and collect data from them. This took about 25 minutes. At 3:30 I'd do the same thing. Then I'd hang around until my shift ended."

In retrospect, that seems like hard labor compared with Goodman's subsequent assignment, which he received in September 1995, when he moved to the day shift. Each hour, Goodman says, his new job was to rise from a table where he was sitting, walk over to a sorting machine and collect a sheet of paper listing the number of pieces of mail the machine and its human operators had handled during the past hour. Then he'd walk to a chalkboard and write down that number. Then he'd return to his table.

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