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His pain defeated Postal Service

An employee who says he was denied promotions because of his injury filed what became a class action lawsuit.

By AARON SHAROCKMAN
Published February 2, 2004

CLEARWATER - Dean Albrecht once dreamed of being a postmaster, but his last job at the post office was clipping addresses out of magazines.

After hurting his back unloading mail trucks, Albrecht ended up sitting in the middle of a room doing busy work as others hustled around him on more important tasks.

He couldn't get a promotion.

He felt slighted.

And he wasn't alone.

In Tampa, injured mail carrier Lenny Fernandez, a college graduate, sat in a small office waiting to answer a telephone that seldom rang. Eight other postal employees shared the same office and were responsible for answering the same phone, Albrecht said.

They all had been hurt at work.

To Albrecht, they were being passed over for promotions, pushed into do-nothing jobs and turned into punch lines for jokes.

"What are they supposed to put on their resume?" asked Albrecht, 43, of Clearwater. "I answered the phone quickest?"

Frustrated, Albrecht filed what eventually became a class action lawsuit against the U.S. Postal Service on behalf of injured employees. That was seven years ago.

It was a classic legal mismatch.

Albrecht was a high school graduate who made less than $20 an hour. He initially worked without a lawyer and wrote his own briefs.

On the other side, the Postal Service had 753,000 employees and annual revenues of $66.5-billion. Postal officials did not respond to interview requests for this story. In court pleadings, they maintained they never discriminated against Albrecht or other injured employees.

But he won.

In December, the Postal Service settled its case with Albrecht and others who had joined his suit. The agreement includes no admission of wrongdoing or liability by the Postal Service, but the agency will change how it classifies injured employees, provide training to postal supervisors and pay settlements to injured workers.

Albrecht's victory could be worth up to $625-million to 25,000 injured postal employees nationwide, or as much as $25,000 each.

Albrecht was born and raised in Pinellas County. His father, Erich, worked for the U.S. Postal Service in Largo, then Seminole. He was a manager.

His son had even bigger dreams.

"I wanted to be postmaster someday," Albrecht said. "That was always the goal, to follow in my father's footsteps."

After graduating from Largo High School and serving in the Navy, Albrecht sorted mail in St. Petersburg starting in 1984. The next year he moved to Lakeland, where he unloaded 70-pound mail bags from semitrailer trucks.

That's where he hurt his back.

"We were carrying these heavy bags up and down," said Albrecht, who was diagnosed with a herniated disc in his lower back and a left shoulder impingement in 1985. "A bunch of us had back problems."

By 1995, Albrecht realized he couldn't keep it up.

"I looked at it this way: If my back hurt and I went home, took some pain pills, fell asleep and woke up feeling okay, that was all right," said Albrecht, who had transferred to Clearwater. "But once I got to the point where I woke up still in pain, I knew I was done."

Albrecht's dream of being postmaster was dead, too.

* * *

The Suncoast District of the Postal Service classified Albrecht and other workers permanently injured on the job as "permanent rehabilitation employees." For Albrecht, that meant he couldn't unload mail trucks anymore.

He saw it as an opportunity to advance.

He wanted to deliver the mail.

"I had been a mail clerk and I had been a mail handler," he said. "All that was left was to be a mail carrier. If I was going to be postmaster, I thought it would be good to have worked all three crafts."

From 1995 to 1997, Albrecht applied for a handful of promotions. He never even got an interview.

Instead, Albrecht returned to work as a clerk, mostly cutting addresses from magazines.

Postal Service supervisors said they denied Albrecht promotions because he had a poor attendance record, according to court records. Albrecht said he often missed work for doctor's appointments related to his injury.

But supervisors maintained he was not singled out. Other employees with poor attendance also were not promoted.

Postal officials also said Albrecht lacked credibility, honesty and integrity, according to court records. Supervisors testified that Albrecht told them he could receive a clean bill of health from his doctor if he was allowed to deliver the mail.

Albrecht denied the claim.

And in his gut, he felt something wasn't right. He filed formal complaints, but they got nowhere.

So at nights, he started going to Pinellas County's law library, reading about employee discrimination.

After a while Albrecht found a book that he still has on his desk, Newburg on Class Actions, Third Edition.

"It was my bible," he said.

Albrecht read it cover to cover. Without an attorney, he sued the U.S. Postal Service in 1997 on behalf of 150 injured mail clerks.

He wasn't the only one.

* * *

Four years earlier, a Colorado postal employee had filed a similar suit after being hurt on the job.

Maintenance worker Chandler Glover, 66, said he was discriminated against by the Postal Service because of his injuries.

"They paid me the same salary, but I was stuck in a corner where I couldn't move or get promoted," said Glover, who retired in 1999. "I had to take a rehab job because they wouldn't give me a promotion."

Glover hired Denver attorney John Mosby while Albrecht worked without a lawyer, filing his own complaints. Mosby brought Glover and Albrecht, and their two lawsuits, together in 2001. As the suit grew, so did the number of employees affected. By the end, nearly 25,000 postal employees were involved.

Mosby said that is the largest case ever against a federal government agency.

"The stars were aligned correctly that Dean and I hooked up," Mosby said. "He really did help me. It was Dean who really educated me on the workings of the Postal Service. It's very difficult for lawyers, let alone laypeople, to understand how all this works.

"Dean was on a mission."

* * *

After more than two years of negotiations, both sides agreed to settle the suit without a trial in December.

Representatives from the Postal Service declined to comment on the terms of the agreement or Albrecht's work history.

In court, the Postal Service argued that Albrecht's complaint was largely an "individualized occurence" and that Albrecht failed to prove he or other injured employees suffered any of the alleged harms, according to federal court records.

Albrecht attended every settlement meeting while continuing to work at the Clearwater post office.

He became a champion for fellow postal employees, who elected him local president of the American Postal Workers Union. Managers, he said, moved his desk to the middle of the floor. He sat, clipping, while workers busied about their day.

He retired in May after 18 years of service.

An estimated 25,000 workers injured on the job since 1992 are eligible to apply for part of the settlement. It offers up to $25,000 each to employees who can show they were discriminated against because of their injury. The amount of the settlement is based on the severity of the discrimination and the timing of their injury.

All totaled, the Postal Service could pay as much as $625-million.

The agreement includes no admission of wrongdoing by the Postal Service. The agency will change how it classifies injured employees. It will also provide training to postal supervisors.

"I know it says they didn't do anything wrong," Albrecht said. "But all that money tells me something different."

* * *

Albrecht was not the only local postal employee to benefit from the settlement.

Lenny Fernandez, 57, retired from the Tampa post office in 2002 after more than 20 years there. In 1976, he shattered his left ankle while he delivered mail. When he returned to work nine years later after earning degrees from Hillsborough Community College and the University of Tampa, Fernandez said he was forced to answer phones.

He applied for other positions but never got them.

Fernandez said Albrecht's courage gives the next generation of injured postal employees a chance.

"Thanks to Dean, there's options now," Fernandez said.

Albrecht now fights federal government agencies full-time. He opened Federal Employees' Comp/EEO Consultant/Advocates in Clearwater last summer and helps injured federal workers take on the government. He has another class-action lawsuit against the Postal Service in the works. It involves the hostile environment created for injured employees.

"I had to take this fight up on the other side of the fence," Albrecht said. "We had to be on our own playing field."

Recently, the Postal Service mailed Albrecht a certificate thanking him for 18 years of service and complimenting him on his excellent safety record.

He laughs when he looks at it, which isn't often.

It's thrown in a drawer, "with nothing I'd want to hang on a wall."

- Times staff researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Aaron Sharockman can be reached at 727 771-4303 or asharockman@sptimes.com

[Last modified February 2, 2004, 01:30:36]


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