Rise in post office violence blamed on stress, bosses' neglect


After two disgruntled postal workers in widely separated parts of the nation opened fire on co-workers Thursday, the latest in a series of violent incidents in post offices in the past 10 years, the question lingers: Why postal workers?

Nobody has a single answer.

Postal Service workers, union officials and experts all point to ingredients that have combined in the last decade to create a recipe for disaster.

"It's becoming a regular occurrence," Al Weide, a consultant with HURECO, a human-resource consulting firm in Fairfax, Va., said of the violence.

Last week, a postal mechanic who had been passed over for a promotion opened fire in a Postal Service garage in Dearborn, Mich., killing a fellow employee and wounding two others. Later that day, after a tense wait, the man's body was found inside the Dearborn facility. He had shot himself.

Hours later, a fired postal worker allegedly sneaked into a post office in Dana Point, Calif., near Los Angeles, fatally shot a letter carrier, tried to get at the postmaster and shot someone on the street in his escape. Mark Richard Hilbun, 39, pleaded innocent yesterday to two murder charges and seven counts of attempted murder.

Since 1983, postal workers have opened fire on co-workers at least 15 times.

For some, last week's shootings came as no surprise. "It can make you crazy," Philadelphia postal clerk Sally Davidow said of the job.

Many blame the violence on job-related stress.

Mr. Weide said postal workers face a combination of monotony, high stress and poorly trained supervisors inattentive to employee needs.

Postal Service officials conducted an employee survey last spring aimed at finding out how workers feel about their workplace.

The survey, sent out to more than 700,000 employees, got an exceptionally high 80 percent response rate, they said. And the findings weren't reassuring.

"At all levels, employees rated the fairness of supervisors or managers as substantially lower" than employees felt was acceptable, said Mark Saunders, a Washington spokesman for the Postal Service.

After last week's shootings, Postmaster General Marvin Runyon said concerns about authoritarian management were "something most of us knew," referring to the survey findings. He said he has instituted a program to focus on improving management-employee relations and the treatment of workers.

He said a 24-hour hot line for employees worried about stress or possible violence has fielded 1,800 calls since it was started in 1991. And it has helped officials make five arrests and fire three employees who had threatened assaults.

But many of the improvements haven't filtered through the many layers in the large bureaucracy.

"It's like a military operation, a plantation," said Greg Bell, president of the Philadelphia local of the American Postal Workers Union, which represents 4,500 postal workers.

"You have managers required to meet unrealistic goals," he said. The amount of mail has increased while the number of workers has declined, he said.

That pressure, Mr. Bell said, has led to supervisors' constantly monitoring employees' work habits and, in one instance, even recording the time employees spent washing their hands in the washrooms.

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