Waiting for Goodman

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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.

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Eric Dexheimer
Contact: Eric Dexheimer