Jim Deden could be a composite character invented by the U.S. Postal Service as part of a public-relations blitz. Now age 53, he has worked for the agency for 28 years as a window clerk, happily selling stamps, handling packages and generally serving the mailing public.
For the past ten years he has been the sole worker at the Adams City Post Office, a Commerce City substation. On his lunch breaks, he brings stamps and other philatelic services to elderly shut-ins in the neighborhood. He even talks like an advertisement for the Postal Service.
"I love my job," he says genuinely. "I love giving the best service possible to all my customers."
He is appreciated by the public. Two months ago the Commerce City Business and Professional Association named him its Citizen of the Year. Who could say he didn't deserve it?
"It was brought to my attention that there were numerous violations of operating procedures and on-going work deficiencies by Mr. Deden at the Adams City Post Office," Commerce City Officer-in-Charge Rich Romero wrote to Deden's union representative last fall. As a result, when the Commerce City businesspeople came looking for some kind words from Deden's bosses to support his nomination, they didn't get any.
As is the case with many worker-management disputes, untangling who is right in this one is not easy. Romero won't elaborate on Deden's alleged misdeeds, but he says Deden was given two weeks to clean up his act. Deden, who suddenly called in sick for six weeks, claims that he had nothing to clean up and that he took the sick leave because he was stressed out by management's harassment.
It may never get sorted out. In the meantime, though, Deden has become the latest Rorschach test in the seemingly endless gamesmanship between postal management and workers.
When his supervisors look at Deden, they see just another surly employee who won't follow instructions. "Mr. Deden has acted extremely defensive...and is resistant to any form of correction by management," Romero asserted in his letter to the Denver union.
When union representatives look at Deden, however, they see further evidence of obtuse managers. For instance, the president of the American Postal Workers Union local, Paul Mendrick, says Deden's supervisors, jealous of his popularity, haven't even recognized his recent Citizen of the Year award.
Worse, Mendrick adds, Deden's bosses openly show him disrespect. One of them, Michael Kay, "remarked to Mr. Deden, in front of witnesses, that Mr. Deden `was nothing but a level five flunky clerk,'" Mendrick complained in a letter to management last September. ("Level five" refers to Deden's pay scale. Kay has denied calling Deden a "flunky.")
The disagreement over the real Jim Deden began on December 7 at the Commerce City Business and Professional Association's holiday party, during which Deden was named Citizen of the Year.
"We don't tell anyone who is going to get it before the banquet," explains Lois Litsey, president of the association. "So when we announced Jim's name, he was very, very surprised and shocked and pleased. Later, though, his wife told him the trouble we'd had, and that took something away from it."
Litsey is in a good position to know Deden's story. As a lifelong resident of the area, she is aware of Deden's after-hours activity in Commerce City, where he is on the board of elders of Our Saviour Lutheran Church and a mainstay in the "Read Aloud" program for School District 14.
In addition, as a member of the Citizen of the Year nominating committee, Litsey was the first to approach Deden's bosses, Kay and Romero, to inform them of the association's intention to honor their fellow employee. "They discouraged it, I guess would be the kindest way to put it," she notes.
She says she met twice with the two men and that both times they tried to talk her out of giving Deden the award. "They said they couldn't stop us, but they really discouraged us."
Although Kay and Romero would not provide details, Litsey adds, they both mentioned "internal problems" as their reason for trying to block the award. "They said they might need to do some disciplinary action against Jim, and that it would be more difficult if he got this award," she says.
Despite the reluctance of Deden's supervisors to support the association's selection, Litsey still hoped they would write his biography for the awards dinner. After all, the Commerce City Post Office is an association member. "But they were so horrendously negative after the two visits that I just decided not to go back," she says.
Deden's difficulties with his bosses are still a mystery to her. "I don't know what kind of internal problems they were talking about," Litsey concludes. "But we were looking at it from a customer-service standpoint. And if there was an internal problem, it sure didn't show up in his work. Everybody here likes Jim. He's very positive, very upbeat, very helpful. Our organization represents more than 200 businesses, so this was quite an honor."
Romero insists he didn't do anything to block Deden's recognition. "We didn't try to discourage them from giving him the award," he says. "We told her they could do whatever they wanted. We just said we couldn't endorse their choice."
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Romero declines to acknowledge whether Deden has ever been disciplined for the "internal problems" to which he and Kay refer. "I can't comment on that," he says.
Still, a letter Romero sent to Mendrick hints at the severity of Deden's transgressions. "Mr. Deden has given us a hard time when he was instructed to close the Dutch door at Adams City," Romero wrote. Deden, he added darkly, has "persisted in defying this order."
Meanwhile, partially in support of Deden and partially in retaliation against management, the American Postal Workers Union is planning a demonstration/customer appreciation day for Deden on February 9 at the Commerce City Post Office. Deden has mixed feelings about his celebrity.
"I'm not happy to be involved in something like this," he says. "But I didn't start it.