The U.S. Postal Service will soon have to make a payout to as many as 130,000 current and former employees as part of a class-action lawsuit, with an anti-discrimination oversight body finding the mailing agency created a program to rid its rolls of employees injured on the job under the guise of trying to accommodate them.
The final ruling from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission came more than 10 years after a former employee first filed a class complaint alleging USPS subjected employees to a “pattern and practice” of discrimination under its National Reassessment Program. EEOC said the initiative, which the Postal Service had in place between 2006 and 2011, subjected a class of employees to disparate treatment, a removal of reasonable accommodations without proving an undue burden, improper disclosure of medical information and general violations of the 1973 Rehabilitation Act. USPS, under the direction of the commission, is in the process of notifying employees affected by the program of their potential eligibility to seek individual relief.
The lawsuit commenced after an employee who suffered an on-the-job injury in 1997 was told in 2006 that under the National Reassessment Program her post-disability assignment had been deemed extraneous work and was escorted off the premises. USPS launched the program ostensibly as a “return-to-work” initiative that would also help eliminate “make-work” jobs that “did not contribute to or otherwise contribute to delivery of the mail,” but would not serve as a cost savings project. In reality, EEOC found, USPS used the program for the objective of shedding employees who required special accommodations.
» Get the best federal news and ideas delivered right to your inbox. Sign up here.
When launching the program, USPS directed injury compensation specialists at 74 districts across the country to prepare account files for all employees classified as limited duty or in rehabilitation. The agency tasked district leaders with making every reasonable effort to identify positions for employees deemed to be in “make-work” jobs. If they could not find a modified position, they would notify employees there was “no work available,” place them on leave without pay and escort them out of the facility.
Over a six-year discovery process, EEOC found 15,000 employees were given new assignments and 10,000 were notified of “no work available.” More than 100,000 employees either recovered and returned to their pre-injury positions or left the agency while the program was in place.
USPS has fought back at every step of proceedings, saying the affected class did not have standing and its actions did not constitute any wrongdoing. EEOC affirmed an initial ruling by an administrative judge in finding the agency’s true intentions were to rid itself of employees on “injured on duty,” status rather than any legitimate operational objective.
“In targeting IOD employees, officials acting under the auspices of the NRP had subjected them to disparate treatment because of their disabilities,” EEOC said in its ruling. It went on to say, “In implementing the NRP, [USPS] officials disregarded the agency's obligations under the Rehabilitation Act, and had done so in a fashion that could only be described as cavalier.”
A wide array of internal documents and emails supported that claim, such as a 2010 “congratulatory” message from a district leader in Texas who praised his colleagues for reaching the goal of reducing injured employees “on rolls by 25 percent.” The email played a song titled “Cripple Creek” as background music. In another email, a human resources manager sent a message to leaders including the postmaster general that said the reassessment program would reduce the number of IOD employees by 14,000.
“Every one of these emails, and numerous others, lays bare the intensity with which the NRP teams at the agency's headquarters, areas, and districts pursued their goal of reducing the IOD rolls,” EEOC said. “Their statements clearly and unequivocally contradict the stated explanation for the existence of the NRP as a means to eliminate unnecessary work.”
IOD employees were also subjected to a toxic work environment as a result of the program, EEOC said. Employees made comments in response to its announcement such as “was past due,” “see you bums at Walmart,” and “get rid of them all.”
“Throughout the agency there was a pervasive fear among IOD employees that being subjected to the NRP would cause them to lose their jobs with the agency and have to work in less-desirable jobs for employers such as Walmart or McDonald's, a fear that was stoked not only by managers but by other employees,” EEOC said.
The Postal Service stripped employees of the reasonable accommodations they had been provided without engaging in an interactive process with employees or considering their individual needs, EEOC found. In one case, an employee suffered a knee injury that prevented extended standing and in 2002 received a job as a safety instructor. In a 2010 NRP meeting, he was informed his job was no longer available and was sent home. Another employee spent 20 years in a limited-duty work position that involved administrative tasks, special projects and mail delivery before being let go under the reassessment program. USPS failed to ever define what actually constituted “necessary work,” which ultimately hurt the agency.
“None of that work disappeared after the IOD employees who had been doing it had left the premises,” EEOC said. “Other employees had to step in and take over, which left many facilities short-staffed.”
The EEOC has already ruled the individual who brought the class action forward is entitled to attorney’s fees and other “individual relief.” Other members of the class must proactively file claims to prove they are members of the class and will then also be entitled to relief. The law firm Thomas & Solomon, which fought the case in front of EEOC, has launched a website to help impacted employees file claims, predicting USPS will fight back against every single individual. The American Postal Workers Union and National Association of Letter Carriers have estimated about 130,000 current and former employees may benefit from the EEOC decision. Thomas & Solomon has sent letters to members of the class in addition to USPS, which was required to notify those individuals of their eligibility to sign their names onto the suit within 10 days of EEOC’s ruling.