Going Postal in Petaluma – Not all it’s cracked up to be

I was very excited at my new job after being hired by the United States Postal Service as a City Carrier Assistant. Who wouldn’t be? The USPS has not done any big hiring in years and offers a great “second career” type opportunity for someone like me who is looking for a change of pace. I started orientation on September 8, and completed the two-day “Carrier Academy” on October 2, which was Friday of the same week. I continued training the next morning, Saturday, October 3, delivering mail under the supervision of a letter carrier.

This morning, after injuring myself on the job 11 days ago and not having worked a day since, I was fired.

  • Symbol of the Post Office Department, still on horseback, that hangs on the wall inside the Petaluma mail sorting facility.
It’s hard to imagine a company firing an employee for filing a workers compensation claim, but that is exactly what happened today – only it’s an agency of the federal government, not a Wall Street corporation, engaging in Retaliation. The USPS self-insures and claims are handled through the Department of Labor.  The “bottom line” for the post office is ultimately affected by claims like these. It makes no sense that the USPS would be engaging in tactics like retaliation, which means punishing or intimidating an employee who has filed a claim or made a grievance. With legal challenges brought by fired workers, it can get even more expensive.  But the USPS has actually been in the news in the past few years for doing exactly that, including a case last December where a postal worker was fired for working unsafely — in spite of coworkers statements that they had done nothing unsafe.

In my case, I, too, had done nothing unsafe.

The street and driveway where my accident occurred

At about 12:30 p.m that Saturday, while delivering mail in a quiet neighborhood, I twisted my foot, tripped, and fell headfirst into the back of a parked car, injuring my head, neck, ribs, and ankle.  I also had a cut lip. I lay on the ground unable to move — and answered yes when a witness to the accident asked if he should call 9-1-1.  I was taken by ambulance to the emergency room, and subsequently put off work by a doctor through October 11. Yesterday was to be my first day back to work, but a text from my boss said not to come in — and that I had a meeting scheduled with the postmaster of Petaluma at 10 a.m. today.

Prior to this morning’s meeting with Petaluma postmaster Joe Machado, I stated that if anything at the meeting was going to lead to disciplinary action against me, that I would like to have a union steward or other union representative present.  Machado was very matter-of-fact, to the point of seeming somewhat angry, and said that I was not entitled to one.  I pushed the issue and read him the union’s Weingarten Rights (legalese that allows me not to participate without the union steward), and he relinquished, saying he was only doing so as a courtesy.

When the steward arrived, the meeting began.  Machado asked how I was feeling, and what had happened. I had come prepared with a Google StreetView  image of the address and sidewalk where I had my fall.  Everything looked nearly the same as the day of my injury.  I told him stepping out a couple of feet into the street to avoid a car in the driveway that was idling, passengers inside engaged in conversation. I hadn’t thought the driver could see me and didn’t want to be in their path if he stuck the car in reverse.

From there, I said that I wasn’t sure, but based on sprained ankle thought that I must have twisted it, and went falling forward while trying to correct for the twist.  I remembered seeing the parked car coming closer as I fell, hitting my head, and winding up on the ground on my side, before finally being able to slowly roll over onto my back.

Machado stated that he was letting me go for unsafe behavior at work.  I asked him specifically what I had done that was unsafe, and he said that I had “obviously” been unsafe for having an accident.  He said that Postal Service has a policy with probationary employees to terminate them for any workplace accident that happens within first 90 days.  I asked to see the statute to which he was referring, but Machado said that I was not entitled to see it.  In his next breath, Machado asked if I had heard of this policy in orientation. The answer was no — we had heard about having a vehicle accident leading to termination, but not a trip and fall accident like mine.

In the end, like the fall, there was nothing that I could do to change the outcome.  As a probationary employee, accident or not, I could be dismissed for any reason.  However, the National Association of Letter Carriers, the union that represents these workers, urges people that have experienced retaliation and been treated this way to file a complaint with the EEOC.  Will I do this? Maybe.  For now, I am just focused on getting my body so it is better and not in pain. While I may no longer be an employee of the USPS, they are responsible for my medical bills, including physical therapy.

I leave the U.S. Postal Service with the clear thought that if this is the way that management treats an employee who has worked less than six days, I can only imagine how the long-term career employees must feel.

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