One day, deep in the pit of my midlife angst, I saw a job notice on a bulletin board at the Merrifield postal facility. It was for a part-time EEO Investigator.
It was 1990, and for five years I had been moving mail in this enormous mail processing center in the DC Virginia suburbs.
I was told, and I believe it, that every day six million pieces of mail came in at one end of the block-long-hangarlike facility, and that same day six million pieces needed to go out the other end. There were seasons of the mail, but like the nearby Potomac River, it never stopped.
The post office was good money and honest work, but I was desperate to get out. I wanted to write stuff about and for Quakers, organize events, stir the pot. It was a harmless enough ambition, assuredly obscure; but it was mine. Unfortunately, nobody was hiring for that.
The EEO gig would be a step up. At least it called on my civil rights experience from the Sixties. This would not be marches or jail, rather the humdrum nitty gritty of their aftermath, making the legal progress work. (If it did.)
I applied and was selected; spent two weeks outside Chicago in training, learning regulations and how to do investigations and reports.
Thereafter, I was called periodically from the work room floor to the EEO office, for some weeks at a time. To make the switch I had to trade my work clothes and apron for a suit left over from my time working on The Hill, ten years earlier. The transition was from one work culture (and class) to another: blue collar/calloused hands to white collar, college-educated office guy with a primitive laptop.
It was my civil rights experience that got me the post, and at first it was good to be back dealing with related issues concretely.
There was a possibility of a permanent transfer to EEO, but I didn’t pursue it. I didn’t want to “advance” in the USPS ranks, as that would involve at least a tacit commitment to stay for a career. Also, such jobs often required taking work home (like complex cases), and I didn’t want to do that either. Mailhandler work, while tedious, was left behind when I clocked out, and the rest of my time, packed with family and Quaker projects, was too precious to intrude on.
Withal, I learned much during these stints on EEO duty. With two to three thousand employees of many different ethnicities, Merrifield was both a testament to the working “success” of integration in the federal workforce – and an always simmering pot of race-tinted conflicts.
This was, I should note, in the era when “going postal” became an accepted slang term for mass shootings, especially in workplaces. Fortunately, we didn’t have any such in my time at Merrifield, but the tensions were always there.
I saw it most in the restrooms. Almost every toilet stall had crude racist graffiti on the door or wall. Many were anti-black. But the most numerous and vicious were the anti-Asian ones. We had several dozen Vietnamese workers on my shift, mostly clustered in the unit that handled changes of address.
I wondered about that. They didn’t cause any ruckus that I ever noticed. So why the vitriol? My guess was it came mainly from among the high number of Vietnam era veterans in the postal ranks (they got extra points on job exams for veterans preference). They were spilling out their PTSD. (Along the lines of “WTF–we fought them for ten f*cking years, and for what? So they could come here and take our jobs?”)
Two examples from my workload: one of the most confusing cases was brought by a woman and based not on race but religion: the complainant was Hindu, and her crew included mainly South Asian persons, some Hindu and some Sikh. The supervisor was, I believe, a Sikh. The complaint was that the supervisor chronically favored other Sikh employees when assigning overtime (many employees sought to maximize better-paid overtime; I did not).
Since I knew very little about either religion, it wasn’t easy to figure this out. And the supervisor stonewalled, stoutly denying everything.
The case went nowhere; I did not have the “rank” in the postal pecking order to actually compel the supervisor to produce records or sign a sworn statement; it was he said-she said. So one lesson was about the weakness (and the built-in “protect-the-higher-ups” bias) of the EEO machinery, as well as the difficulty in sorting out many cases.
The other was my “biggest” case of all, and in it I found out about “gaming the system.”
Background: despite the ugly graffiti, the Vietnamese were mostly exemplary workers: good at the repetitive work and memorization, few absences, little sickness, stuck together, didn’t complain.
However there was a white male employee, let’s call him Alex, a Vietnam veteran, who had a thing for Asian females, and who was habitually harassing the Vietnamese women. It was very creepy: he followed them to the restrooms, repeatedly approached them in the cafeteria, propositioned them, ignored brushoffs.
The senior EEO investigator was Quincy, who was Black and had no legs. He got around on full-length swinging prostheses and crutches. Quincy told me that when someone in EEO informally advised Alex to cut it out, Alex proceeded to file complaints against the EEO office Director and staff. I was not targeted in those complaints, but only because I hadn’t yet been assigned there when they started.
Which meant the case landed on my desk. Or a piece of it did, one very fat file. But this was just the tip of the iceberg: Quincy showed me a filing cabinet where the Alex files filled two drawers.
Alex was like a “jailhouse lawyer”: he was clever and determined. He had studied all the regulations I had just recently been introduced to.
One of them was that, if a complaint alleged more than one type of discrimination, each type had to be separately investigated and reported on. At the time, the EEO regs recognized seven types or “purviews” of discrimination: race, color, religion, sex, age, national origin, disability, plus reprisal for filing.
On each complaint, Alex had checked every single purview. And every time he was interviewed by an EEO staffer or supervisor, he filed a new complaint, all purviews checked.
This was slick. Who even knew Alex’s “national origin”? Or religion, if any? Or how old he was. Or any “disability” (other than moral)? Yet his sand-in-the-gears tactics had quickly ground the EEO machinery to a halt, while he continued to stalk the Vietnamese women.
So I, the rookie, was supposed to master all this material, gather testimony from the women and other witnesses, and put it into a report solid enough to withstand his counterattacks and justify action.
What kind of action? Theoretically he could be fired; but in fact, such firings were all but unheard of. Between union rules, civil service protections, and just residual racism, Alex had better job tenure than any professor I ever heard of.
But long story short, I pulled it off. Sort of.
Besides burrowing through the heaps of paperwork, the hardest part was getting testimony. I needed the women to tell me what had happened, and then sign statements summarizing it, usually ones I wrote and read back to them.
But to a person, they were petrified at the prospect. Several refused and hid. More than one sat at my desk sobbing and shaking, afraid not only of Alex, but also clearly terrified of me.
Why me? “I’m on your side; I’m here to help,” I protested.
Yeah, sure. Quincy, explained much of it: there were petty and cruel dictators during all their years in Vietnam. And war most of the time. Official corruption and violence, disappearances, assassinations, interrogations with torture, were routine.
Plus they or their families had worked for the U. S. military during the war, which was why they had to leave Vietnam after the Communist victory: they were “enemy” collaborators, lucky to escape alive.
Survivors, all of them. One survival skill they had developed like coats of kevlar was that of keeping their heads down and saying as little as possible to outsiders. Trust no one beyond the narrowest family/clan circle. It made total sense.
But here they were, away from their friends, sitting across from a strange white man wearing a power necktie (and for all they knew, a gun under my suit jacket), interrogating them again, about another white man, and talking English just like the other white man did).
I felt for them. I knew and hated that my very presence was retraumatizing. But I had a job to do, and I really was on their side.
After facing many tears, with much pleading, cajoling and persistence, I finally extracted enough admissions for a report. I worked like a dog on it.
When it was ready, Quincy stopped by. He opened the folder, paged through the top layers, and his eyes widened. “That,” he pointed, “is a piece of art.”
It wasn’t true, but it was his highest compliment. And the report was competent enough that it worked. As I said, sort of. A high manager somewhere read it, likely consulted legal counsel, and told Alex to go home.
On his way out the door, Alex filed new complaints, again checking all the boxes, and now with my name prominent on the defendants list.
And the high-up manager, to stay on the right side of the union, lower the risk of a lawsuit, and generally to cover his butt, did not fire Alex. Or even suspend him.
Instead, Alex was put on “administrative leave.” That is, sent home with full pay. And benefits. Accruing seniority and retirement credits.
The term? Indefinite.
That is, Alex got to sit home (or travel, learn a useful trade, whatever) collecting paychecks, until the matter was settled, which could take years.
That was my big achievement. Nitty gritty. Humdrum. Making the system work. To justify the movement’s sacrifices and martyrs.
On the upside, Alex was off the workroom floor. The Vietnamese women could now tend to calls of nature in peace, and take meal breaks chattering undisturbed in their tuneful tongue about hopefully non-traumatic topics.
How did the case turn out?
I have no idea.
Not long after the report was filed, in spring 1994, I got a job offer from a Quaker center near Philadelphia. It paid less than half of what I made at Merrifield, but would involve writing Quaker stuff, organizing events, and (gently) stirring the pot. It was my longed-for escape from postal captivity, and I jumped at it. Somebody else had to pick up the case.
But yes, if he was slick enough, Alex could have collected administrative leave pay for months or even years.
At about the same time, a new movie was released. Wikipedia notes: “The 1994 comedy film Naked Gun 33 1⁄3: The Final Insult [the third and last entry in a Naked Gun comedy series] includes a scene where the main character must deal with a series of escalating threats, including the sudden appearance of dozens of disgruntled postal workers randomly firing weapons in every direction.” One critic said “By the time the disgruntled postal workers show up, you’ll howl with laughter. The laughs don’t stop there. . . .”
The film co-starred O.J. Simpson, in his last film role before being arrested for two murders.