Go Postal, Go for the Green

How much does one ten-hour hostage situation cost? Plenty, if you're talking about the United States Postal Service.

This past Christmas Eve day, seven postal employees at the USPS's General Mail Facility, situated near the old Stapleton airport, were taken hostage by a former postal worker. They were released, unharmed, later that evening.

Now, as spring comes to the Rockies, their Christmas is finally arriving.
More than three months after the incident, none of the seven mail handlers, who are federal employees, have returned to work. But they are still getting paid. All have filed for long-term medical and job benefits under federal workers' compensation laws, citing the emotional and physical trauma sustained during the standoff.

When will they be ready to return to work? Maybe never.
"Not to seem insensitive, but these people are bought and paid for," boasts David Ross, president of the mail handlers' union, to which the hostages belong. "The Office of Workers Compensation Programs is going to pay them for the rest of their lives. The people I spoke with will never come back into the post office. They are that rattled."

The seven men and women held prisoner by the disgruntled worker apparently were not the only people traumatized by the event, either. At least a half-dozen other men and women--spouses of hostages, a supervisor who felt threatened, and postal workers who were friends of the gunman himself--have filed, or are about to file, for extended off-the-job benefits as well.

Certainly, if anyone has the right to feel uneasy about going to work, it is employees of the Postal Service. In the past decade, angry postal workers have killed 32 of their colleagues while they worked. That number doesn't include the gunmen themselves, six of whom committed suicide after their rampages. Thanks to such an uncollegial track record, "going postal" has entered the lexicon as a defi-nition of a person turning violent, usually against his co-workers.

The events of December 24, 1997, began as a classic going-postal situation. That's when David Lee Jackson, 43, a fourteen-year USPS veteran who'd been fired from his job a year earlier for threatening a supervisor, returned to his former job site. A former co-worker of Jackson's later told reporters that he knew that meant trouble: "Last time I saw him, he stated to me, 'If I ever step inside this building again, you better step aside, because I'm going to take care of business, and you know I got the weapons to do it."

Seven workers didn't step aside quickly enough that morning. Jackson, wearing camouflage and body armor and brandishing a shotgun, entered the GMF at about 7 a.m. and corralled the unlucky workers into a small office, where he held them for the next ten hours. Some were handcuffed; others were instructed to lie on the floor. The standoff ended peacefully that evening, when Jackson gave himself up to police negotiators.

But that was only the beginning of the negotiations over when, if ever, any of the workers could sort mail again.

According to federal law, the employer of a worker who has sustained a traumatic on-the-clock injury (versus a developing chronic condition, such as carpal tunnel syndrome) must pick up the first 45 days of benefits--salary plus medical bills. In this case, that period ended on February 7. According to all parties, the Postal Service fulfilled its obligation.

Next, if the injured person wishes to stay off the job but continue receiving benefits, he must apply to the workers' compensation office, which is part of the U.S. Department of Labor. A physician's evaluation, stating that the worker is medically or psychologically incapable of returning to work, is required.

Depending on several factors--how many dependents the worker has at home, for instance--workers' comp will pay the damaged employee somewhere between 66 and 75 percent of his salary until he returns to work. The agency will also cover any medical bills the injured worker incurs.

Last week, a middle school in Arkansas resumed classes two days after two young boys shot and killed four of their fellow students and a teacher on the school's playground. But so far, none of the seven postal hostages have been able to return to their jobs. They have applied for workers' comp benefits to continue to pay their salaries while they recover.

Tom O'Melia, a supervisory claims examiner for the Division of Federal Employees Compensation Office of Workers Compensation Programs, says four of the ex-hostages' claims have been accepted--each of the four obtained a note from a physician saying that he or she could not return to work yet. The remaining three are still in the process of securing their long-term benefits. The delay, O'Melia explains, is the result of some bureaucratic hassles--some hostages, for instance, failed to get a doctor's note, and the USPS itself has yet to wrap up its investigation of the event.

"We're still missing a lot of information as to what took place," O'Melia says. For example, he says, "we need to confirm that these people were indeed hostages. The only thing we're going on now is newspaper articles." Still, he adds that the remaining applications are moving ahead and will most likely be accepted.

Because of the delays, however, the seven hostages as a group have retained an attorney, Janice Finch, to represent them in their quest for more paid recovery time. Finch says that, in addition to seeking pay while they recover from their psychological wounds, several of the seven hostages also suffered physical injuries that could prevent them from returning to work for some time.

"Most are aggravations of prior injuries," Finch says. "For instance, a person with carpal tunnel who was handcuffed. Or something related to how long a person was required to lie on the floor. Another hostage has elevated blood pressure," which the hostage situation exacerbated, she says.

Neither Finch nor the Postal Service will release the hostages' names. Finch notes, however, that the hostages themselves weren't the only ones traumatized. She declines to specify the number of postal workers she represents who are seeking workers' compensation as the result of that nearly violent day, but she says that it is "less than ten, more than six."

A few of her clients, she says, are spouses of workers held hostage. These husbands and wives also have had difficulty returning to work, and so they, too, are seeking workers' compensation. Finch adds that a supervisor who was not held hostage but thought he could have been a target of the gunman's wrath is also seeking pay while he recovers.

O'Melia confirms that his office has so far received claims from four postal workers "sort of tangentially" related to the December standoff. None of the four have returned to work. "They are from people not actually held hostage, but who were stressed out by the situation," he explains. Specifically, he says, two claims are from workers who can't continue their employment because they knew the hostages, and two are from workers who claim they can't work because they knew the gunman.

Even after all the claims are paid to all the postal employees so traumatized by the event that they can't go back to work--"This is a multi-million-dollar issue," predicts Ross, the union president--the Postal Service can still expect more big bills.

Her clients "may be exploring other federal court claims against the Postal Service," says Finch.

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