One night in 2009, Madelaine Sattlefield lifted an 80-pound tray of letters carefully sorted by Missouri ZIP code. She had done this task thousands of times in nine years, but on this night, her arm seared with pain and went limp by her side. The tray crashed and sent envelopes cascading around her. She could barely move but immediately worried about what an injury might mean for her job.
“Anxiety had kicked in. I was like, what are they going to say, what are they going to do?” Sattlefield said.
Within months, the U.S. Postal Service fired her, one of about 44,000 employees who were either fired or left their jobs under pressure over five years in a program that “targeted” employees with work-related injuries, according to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. A commission ruling on the class action complaint also found that the Postal Service discriminated against an additional 15,130 injured workers by changing their work duties or accommodations, and unlawfully disclosed the private medical information of injured workers across the country.
Now, more than a decade later, despite the ruling, the Postal Service is still fighting the class-action complaint. It has refused to settle, stating in its latest financial report that the case’s outcome could have a “material impact” on the agency. The EEOC plans to go case by case through about 28,000 claims, and the Postal Service is contesting each worker’s allegations, which could drag out the process for years. To dispute many of the claims, the Postal Service is arguing that the workers aren’t providing sufficient proof that they actually had disabilities or were harmed by the program.
“They never say die,” said Robbie Dix, head of the EEOC’s federal appellate program. In 48 years with the EEOC, the agency tasked with enforcing employment discrimination laws, Dix said he can’t recall another federal agency systematically targeting so many disabled workers. Their class action is among the largest the thinly staffed EEOC — which normally gets about 8,000 federal hearings requests each year — has handled.
The Postal Service ended its program targeting employees with disabilities in 2011, but years afterward, many workers are still dealing with its consequences. Some, like Sattlefield, had permanent disabilities. Many say they suffered financial and emotional harm.
Exactly how much USPS could owe the workers is unknown. The Postal Service’s latest financial report estimates $178 million in potential liability for its pending employment claims, including this case.
The legal review is unlikely to end soon. Once the EEOC completes its evaluation, the Postal Service can still disagree with its findings, opening the door to worker appeals.
A USPS spokesman declined to speak with ProPublica about the dispute. He also declined requests to discuss the agency’s injury rate and accommodations for disabled employees.
The Postal Service, one of the largest federal agencies, has a unionized workforce of more than 630,000 employees and a long history of adversarial relations between workers and management. Workplace safety has often been at issue, and federal researchers have documented the physical strains of mail delivery and operating heavy mail sorting equipment. Postal workers make up only a fifth of the federal workforce but they suffered about half of all federal workplace injuries and illnesses in 2019, according to U.S. Labor Department data.
“There are ways to redesign every job so workers don’t get hurt,” said Debbie Berkowitz, former chief of staff and senior policy adviser at the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. “Employers have to provide a workplace free of hazards that can cause physical harm.”
On paper, the Postal Service agrees. In its employee manual, the agency states that “any occupational injury or illness can be prevented. This goal is realistic, not theoretical.”
The agency lists ways of creating an injury-free workplace through protective measures like safety equipment, employee training and strictly enforced safety rules. Yet last year alone, the Labor Department registered nearly 37,000 postal workers’ injuries and illnesses through its workers’ compensation office. The Labor Department requires employers to report in-patient hospitalizations, amputations and eye losses. Since it began collecting the information in 2015, the Postal Service has reported almost 800 such incidents.
The program that affected Sattlefield and thousands of other injured workers was called the National Reassessment Program and began in 2006. USPS officials later testified that it was developed to ensure that injured staff members were doing “necessary work” and to return workers who had recuperated to their original duties.
What the program actually did, an EEOC judge wrote, was “get rid of” as many injured employees as possible. The EEOC found that the Postal Service eliminated workers who were moved to jobs that met their medical restrictions. The jobs were real, the EEOC said, and after the workers were removed, others had to perform the same tasks.
In 2015, and again in 2017, the EEOC ruled that the program illegally discriminated against injured workers by creating a hostile work environment, taking away disability accommodations and revealing workers’ confidential medical information.
“It was this enormous travesty and violation of the law,” said Heather White, an attorney who specializes in federal-sector employment litigation. “It’s absolutely not typical of how federal agencies are supposed to operate.”
Getting hurt put Sattlefield right in the program’s crosshairs.
According to her workers’ compensation records, Sattlefield’s dominant right hand and arm never again worked properly. She had a torn rotator cuff, and her doctor outlined new work restrictions.
Under federal disability law, Sattlefield believed she had the right to a position that would meet those medical restrictions. But when her surgery was over, she said her supervisor sent her back to the same job lifting and pushing the heavy trays and packages her doctor told her to avoid.
When she asked for work conforming to her doctor’s orders, she was told nothing was available. At 39, Sattlefield received a letter telling her she was no longer employed.
“I was an emotional wreck. Like man, what am I going to do? This is supposed to be my job to pay my bills,” she said. “No one ever wants to be in that position where you can’t even buy socks for your children.” Soon, she couldn’t afford to pay her rent.
Many employees whose jobs were targeted had spinal injuries, nerve damage and other disorders limiting the function of their hands, arms, shoulders, backs and feet. Some were hurt in one-time accidents like falls.
When USPS launched the worker “reassessment program,” it was wrestling with major cost increases. Fuel prices were rising. Fewer people were using higher-margin services like first-class mail. Labor made up about 80% of the agency’s expenses. “A continued focus on work hour reductions is imperative,” Chief Financial Officer H. Glen Walker wrote in a 2006 report.
Former agency officials who led the program declined or did not respond to ProPublica’s interview requests.
Agency officials said the program was not a cost-savings measure but meant to ensure that workers were employed in suitable positions. But the agency reported that it led to about $150 million in annual savings. At least one executive won a service award for the program’s success.
Six years of legal discovery produced internal emails from the Postal Service that, according to the EEOC, “lay bare the intensity” with which managers running the program “pursued their goal of reducing the [injured-on-duty] rolls.”
One such email was a congratulatory message to the Fort Worth, Texas, district for reducing “our current NRP employees on rolls by 25%.” According to the EEOC, the message included a song called “Cripple Creek” as background music.
Workers allege that throughout the program, managers harassed and intimidated them. They said they felt denigrated when colleagues and supervisors suggested they would end up as Walmart greeters after losing postal jobs.
In one email, the agency’s health and human resources manager told then-Postmaster General John Potter that 338 injured workers had been removed from the payroll: “338 it is and welcome to Walmart,” his response read. Potter, now president and CEO of the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, did not respond to requests for comment.
Sandra McConnell, a mail carrier in Rochester, New York, was among the first workers to lose her job as the program was tested in pilot regions. She had fallen on a staircase on her delivery route in 1997, permanently damaging her spine. When she returned to work in 1999, managers created a role that met her doctor’s restrictions. For seven years, she took customer complaint calls and handled change of address mail, among other duties. But in May 2006, she was told there was no work available for her unless she could return to her carrier job. She was fired and escorted off the premises.
Her colleagues testified that she was never idle and that work piled up after her firing.
The Postal Service, however, argued that McConnell and other employees fired between 2006 and 2011 were doing “made up,” “unnecessary” jobs.
McConnell filed a complaint alleging disability discrimination. She eventually became the lead plaintiff in the class action. More than 10 years after she was fired, the EEOC ordered the Postal Service to reinstate her position and pay her for lost wages.
For many workers fired under the National Reassessment Program, memories of how they were treated by managers remain difficult.
“You had to put up with the ridicule and being talked about by your fellow employees,” said Donald McIlwain, a former mail carrier from Shreveport, Louisiana. “They didn’t see all the work I did. I was just a slacker.”
McIlwain had been a carrier for nine years when he twisted his knee while delivering mail. His job required constant motion — lifting bins weighing upward of 70 pounds, squatting, climbing stairs and getting in and out of his truck. He had surgery on a torn meniscus, and his doctor recommended only two hours of walking and standing per workday in 20-minute intervals. That ruled out mail carrier work. Records show that the doctor also evaluated his percentage of disability in various areas of life. Family and home responsibilities: 50%. Recreation: 80%. Occupation: 80%.
“To me it was like, what do I do now? What I love doing is gone. I can’t do it anymore,” he said.
McIlwain’s permanent knee injury came five years before the National Reassessment Program was unveiled. According to his employment records, the agency assigned him an administrative job managing occupational safety evaluations. He worked with a manager who, he said, complained about disabled workers. In 2010, he said he watched multiple disabled colleagues get fired and escorted from the building. About two months later, his turn came.
ProPublica spoke with about 20 former USPS employees who lost jobs because of the National Reassessment Program. Many described feeling humiliated and belittled by USPS, which has denied mistreating them. At the EEOC, one witness testified to hearing injured employees called “lazies” and “fakers.” Another testified to hearing program staff members say there were “going to be a lot of sorry ‘rehabs’ working at Walmart soon.”
Sattlefield, the Missouri-based mail handler, also still recalls her supervisor’s insults. “If you were injured, you were made to feel low, like you weren’t even a person,” she said. “They always yelled out something about us being not worthy. ‘Come get your broken-down self and take this mail out,’” she said.
Some former postal workers who shared their experiences were unwilling to be named publicly for fear of further job retaliation while the case is pending.
One employee who lost his job developed severe tendon and nerve damage over 19 years at the Postal Service. He said his time with the agency destroyed his mental, emotional and physical health.
“I’ve been trying to find peace, and I just can’t seem to find it. I’ve never gone back to what I used to be before. You lose all enjoyment of life,” he said. “I might have gotten out of there, but I don’t think I’ve survived.”
This article first appeared in ProPublica