Waiting for Goodman

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.

Goodman estimates the entire circuit took about three to four minutes. "When I wasn't doing that," he says, "I sat at a desk doing nothing."

That led to another problem.
Specifically, Goodman recalls, "By November 1995, my supervisor was becoming upset at my falling asleep at my desk. He was kind of getting angrier and angrier, as if I was doing something wrong." Which, Goodman insists, he wasn't.

It all began back in 1992. "The main symptom I had was that I was falling asleep all the time," he explains. "I would pull up to a red light in my car, fall asleep for thirty seconds, wake up and drive off." In October 1992 Goodman was diagnosed with a relatively obscure condition known as obstructive sleep apnea.

"The problem is you can't breathe and sleep at the same time," he explains. "You repeatedly wake up during the night. In fact, you don't really fall asleep. The disease is generally associated with obese or overweight males in their forties. And I certainly fit that profile."

All of which eventually led to Goodman's difficulties staying awake between his four minutes of work each hour at the post office in the fall of 1995. After all, he points out, "What do you think's going to happen when you have a person with obstructive sleep apnea sitting at a desk doing nothing?"

On December 1, 1995, Goodman handed his skeptical supervisor another letter from his doctor. "My patient Steve Goodman has a medical condition which causes him to fall asleep during the day at times," it clarified.

Two hours later Goodman received a memo from his boss. "You are hereby notified that you are being placed in an off-duty status," it said, adding that Goodman's status would be "indefinite" and unpaid. The reason was explained below: "SAFETY ISSUE," it stated. "To prevent injury to SELF!"

"They apparently thought I might fall asleep and fall off my chair," Goodman hypothesizes. "Which," he adds, "I never have. So I guess it was also a moral issue: As long as I could remain awake, it wasn't a problem."

Put another way, "The issue became what I was doing when I was doing nothing."

Four days later Goodman appealed his suspension through his union. Goodman, his union rep pointed out, "cannot be any more unsafe now then he has been during the last two years."

Meanwhile, postal supervisors had ordered Goodman to go through a "fitness for duty" examination with a physician of the agency's choosing. On January 4, 1996, Dr. Clarence Kluck wrote up his report, finding Goodman fit for duty. "It is recommended his work accommodations should be modified," a summary of the report says. "Dr. Kluck advises Mr. Goodman should be given an active job where he can move about. He should be able to lift up to 30 pounds."

Which would be entirely accurate if it weren't for Goodman's carpal tunnel syndrome.

Goodman reported back to duty at the post office on January 5. (Last month, in a settlement agreement, he collected his five weeks' worth of pay from his suspension.) His supervisors followed the "fit for duty" recommendations and assigned him to moderate lifting chores and to ripping the long cardboard sleeves off letter containers. "It was a real easy job, generally reserved for people with hurt back and hurt legs," Goodman says. But it hurt his hands.

So, on January 11, Goodman came into work with another note from his doctor, this one reminding his supervisor that Goodman had carpal tunnel syndrome. Goodman was assigned back to his desk.

From which he arose every hour to tally the number of pieces of mail handled by each machine and write it on the blackboard.

Hoping to keep him awake on his downtime, Goodman's supervisors also added some other chores. After writing his numbers on the board, for instance, he was to walk though the mail-sorting areas and look for mistakes every twenty minutes. "It's certainly not very productive," Goodman concedes. "But I do catch a few."

Also, Goodman was assigned as an "access control employee"--which, practically applied, meant he was a doorman who answered customers' questions as they entered the facility. He did that until two weeks ago, when the postal policemen's union filed a grievance.

"They didn't mention me by name, but they basically complained that I was doing their job," Goodman says. "So now I am back sitting at the desk with nothing to do."

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Eric Dexheimer
Contact: Eric Dexheimer