Postal worker wins anti-Semitism ruling in Petaluma

What began for some Petaluma postal workers as lively dinner breaks — "Night of a Thousand Tacos," "Stinko de Mayo" and "Hebe night" — has gone the way of a bankrupt theme park.

It was fun while it lasted.

An era of irreverent ethnic jokes, anti-Semitic slurs and swastika-carved books, bathrooms and bananas has ended at the Petaluma's North Bay Processing and Distribution Center after a federal regulator recently ruled against the U.S. Postal Service in a discrimination complaint.

Judge Thomas Cosentino of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has held that postal managers failed to curb years of anti-Semitic activity at the plant.

As part of Cosentino's ruling, postal managers must now make amends through staffwide sensitivity training, stepped-up discipline for offenders, and compensation for the original complainant's therapy and legal fees.

Last week, the postal center hosted diversity-awareness training for the entire staff. Management is planning a second session on the topic of sensitivity in the workplace.

The problem was first reported to the EEOC in a 1995 complaint by George Kaufman, a Jewish custodian who continues to work at the postal center.

Despite the favorable ruling, Kaufman said the ordeal will hurt his chances for career advancement. "I became a pariah. I'll be pushing a broom for a long time as a result of this."

Postal officials denied their negligence in the matter before the ruling but since then have declined to disclose the agency's stance. U.S. Postal spokesman Horace Hinshaw said the North Bay plant has informed staff of the ruling and posted a notice outlining the right of all employees to work free of unlawful discrimination.

The trouble began for the 10-year postal worker when he encountered work orders containing anti-Semitic slurs in 1994, Kaufman said. He also asserted that he discovered numerous personal effects of co-workers, including fruit and books, inscribed with swastikas.

A co-worker told Kaufman of witnessing the maintenance workers exchange "Seig Heil" salutes. And ethnic-food theme nights were common affairs in which cultural respect was thrown out with the paper plates and takeout boxes, Cosentino discovered in the investigation.

Although Kaufman was not aware of all of the discriminatory activity in the beginning, he reported what he knew to postal supervisors. He contends they weren't responsive enough. The supervisors gave verbal reprimands and conducted their own investigation. However, none of the actions discouraged a small group of maintenance workers from off-color tricks.

In addition to celebrating Nazi culture at Kaufman's expense, the workers purportedly decorated an employee-room locker with magazine clippings of African-Americans and dubbed the locker "Negro Corner."

Kaufman learned from other co-workers that the maintenance workers referred to him as a "f—king Jew" and a "kike."

In another alleged incident, Kaufman believes that someone tampered with the brakes of a riding lawnmower that only he uses.

"I was just flipped out, then I was out on [one month's] stress leave."

Supervisors allegedly turned on Kaufman. The custodian found himself suspended for a week after he entered the fray by posting a photograph of a cake with a swastika on it, which he had discovered in a co-worker's cubbyhole.

"I did things that weren't brilliant, but I was already over the edge at the time," he said.

The anti-Semitic activity has apparently subsided in the weeks since the ruling, although Kaufman said he has heard rumors of an undercurrent among the usual suspects.

Nevertheless, the custodian plans to remain at his job.

"I'm tethered by the golden handcuffs," he said, acknowledging a lack of job skills. "I'm kind of trapped here."

Lori Eppstein

Lori Eppstein is a former staff writer.