Anti-Semitic charges lead Postal Service to settle

A Jewish postal worker in Petaluma who was subjected to years of anti-Semitism has reached an out-of-court settlement with the U.S. Postal Service for $125,000.

George Kaufman said he never intended to profit financially when he filed his original discrimination complaint in 1995.

In fact, he believed the case had culminated last year, when a federal regulator ruled that the U.S. Postal Service had failed to curb years of anti-Semitic activities at the North Bay Processing and Distribution plant where Kaufman worked.

However, Kaufman, 46, decided to pursue the case when he saw what he thought to be the futility of that ruling.

Kaufman said the perpetrators of the anti-Semitic acts, although identified in the hearing, were not punished by the Postal Service and that the regulator-imposed staffwide sensitivity training was "meaningless."

So Kaufman filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court in San Francisco last year, suing the Postal Service for a federal-employee maximum of $300,000 in compensatory damages.

A jury trial that would have begun this month or next was averted when a settlement was reached in January. Kaufman went public only after a check was issued two weeks ago.

"The judge in the case seemed to tell the parties, and especially the U.S. Postal Service, that there are some ugly, ugly facts in this case and that they should make every effort to settle," said William Kwong, Kaufman's lawyer.

Kaufman said going for a bigger award was not important, because he didn't pursue the case for the money.

"When I started this, I had a point that I wanted to make, but I guess I was a bit naïve in thinking the Postal Service was going to respond in a good way," he said somewhat bitterly. "Our society only seems to recognize financial penalties. What good is a moral victory anymore?"

Kaufman, a custodian who is in his 11th year at the North Bay plant, was first subjected to anti-Semitism on the job in 1994.

He received work orders with the words "don't touch this you f—ing kike" scrawled on them.

He saw scraps of paper referring to a supervisor as Dr. Josef Mengele — the infamous doctor known for his cruel experimentation on Jews during the Holocaust.

He said he came across several items — such as a banana, some books and a bandage box in a first-aid kit — that his co-workers had inscribed with swastikas. He also found a photograph of a cake decorated with a swastika taped to a co-worker's cubbyhole.

Moreover, some workers in the maintenance department used to have "theme" dinner breaks, such as "Stinko de Mayo" or "Hebe night," Kaufman reported.

A member of Congregation Ner Shalom, a Reconstructionist synagogue in Cotati, Kaufman filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in 1995, eventually receiving a ruling last year.

Kaufman was pleased with the 1999 decision and said he didn't care that he received no financial award other than compensation for his legal fees and the cost of his stress therapy.

But he was upset when he soon realized Judge Thomas Cosentino's ruling was having little effect.

North Bay plant officials "ignored or minimalized this thing every step of the way," Kaufman said. "They could care less about the situation. When they did anything at all, it was meaningless."

Regarding the sensitivity training, for example, Kaufman expected an intense education program, aimed at the main perpetrators, that would help eradicate hateful acts and racist graffiti at the North Bay plant.

"Instead," said Kwong, "the trainer talked about sensitivity to other people's races, and it was only for 10 minutes or so in what is called a 'standup' before the shift starts, when the supervisor is going over the work for that day."

Kaufman was irate. "The postal service did what it was supposed to do by the letter of the law," he said, "but they did all they could to do nothing."

At that point, Kaufman decided to pursue the case in U.S. District Court.

His lawsuit charged the U.S. Postal Service with discrimination based on religion, with dodging its federal obligation to prevent discrimination, and with responding inappropriately and inadequately to both his original complaint and the ruling on it.

"And these people are being paid by the taxpayers," Kwong said. "This should be the last place something like this happens."

Dan DeMiglio, manager of corporate relations for the Postal Service in California, confirmed that a settlement was reached but offered no further comment other than, "It's behind us now."

Kaufman said the entire matter has been frustrating.

When he initially reported the anti-Semitic activity, for example, he said supervisors gave only verbal reprimands and conducted their own investigation.

And shortly after he filed his original complaint, Kaufman was suspended for allegedly making contradictory statements.

"I would rather have stuck my head in a meat grinder than go through all of this," said Kaufman, who lives in Petaluma with his wife of 19 years and two children.

Kaufman, who served in the U.S. Air Force in the early '70s, said remaining on the job has been difficult.

However, he said he is reluctant to toss aside 17 years of federal service and that, moreover, getting a transfer is very difficult. He is in the process of applying for an associate supervisor training program.

"I'm still working in the same place with the same people in the same environment," he said. "I'm not saying there are the same overt comments, and I haven't seen any physical symbolism lately. But I still get the same looks and the same attitude."

Kwong said he heard about one non-Jewish employee who recently had a swastika scrawled into the dust on his car's outside mirror.

And after last summer's Los Angeles-area Jewish community center shooting, after which a Filipino-American postal worker was shot dead, "someone had posted" an article or declaration "that seemed to glorify that event," Kwong said. "It was checked out by management and removed."

Despite this, Kaufman said showing up to work every day is not a miserable experience for him.

"I'd say every day is pretty miserable for the people who have done this crap," he said. "What these people tried to do is make me a victim, destroy my career, ruin my family life and send me into the gutter. Well, none of those things took place.

"Then again, I am left having wished that none of this had ever happened."

Andy Altman-Ohr

Andy Altman-Ohr was J.’s managing editor and Hardly Strictly Bagels columnist until he retired in 2016 to travel and live abroad. He and his wife have a home base in Mexico, where he continues his dalliance with Jewish journalism.