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Postal Workers Call Management Insensitive in Massacre Aftermath

March 19, 1987

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Grief-stricken survivors of the Edmond, Okla., post office massacre last summer suffered further pain from ″an utterly cold and insensitive management,″ including a postmaster who banned reading of sympathy mail on the job, a House panel was told Wednesday.

″At first we were attacked by Pat Sherrill and now we were under emotional attack from management,″ said Steve Brehm, a postal clerk at Edmond.

Edmond postal worker Patrick Sherrill shot and killed 14 fellow employees and seriously wounded six others before he committed suicide on the morning of Aug. 20, 1986.

″We did not know the reason for the attack then and we will never know why it happened,″ Postmaster General Preston R. Tisch told a joint subcommittee hearing of the House Post Office and Civil Service Committee.

The emotional aftermath of the massacre was described by Brehm and Carla Phillips, whose husband Lee was killed in the attack. They were backed by Moe Biller, president of the AFL-CIO’s American Postal Workers Union, who said survivors encountered a ″bureaucratic stone wall″ in trying to obtain death benefits.

Tisch acknowledged that ″we have made some mistakes along the way″ but said all surviving employees and families ″now are receiving or have received the benefits to which they are entitled.″

Said Tisch, ″The rest of us in the Postal Service want to ensure that all issues are resolved promptly, fairly and completely.″

Looking back, David H. Charters, senior assistant postmaster general for human resources, said Sherrill should never have been hired as a postal worker.

Nonetheless, Charters said, ″mass murder is not a consequence which can reasonably be expected to flow from a faulty hiring decision.″ Mrs. Phillips, who also worked for the Postal Service, told of months of frustrating efforts to obtain survivors’ benefits after the massacre, even though postal officials assured her they would ″bend all the rules″ and ″take care of everything.″ She said her husband’s funeral expenses weren’t paid for nearly seven months.

Mrs. Phillips said the families were angered to learn of a plan - made without consulting them - to erect a memorial inscribed with Sherrill’s name among the list of victims.

Brehm said he and other surviving employees, acting out of a ″sense of responsibility,″ returned to work on Aug. 21, less than 24 hours after the massacre.

″While we didn’t expect special praise, none of us was prepared for the insensitive treatment we received,″ he said.

Brehm said Edmond’s new postmaster, Dale Fowlkes, met with his employees for the first time on Oct. 14, less than two months after the massacre, and announced strict new work rules because he said their job performance was unsatisfactory.

He said Fowlkes banned personal telephone calls by employees, prohibited any reading of hundreds of sympathy cards and letters during work hours, and issued a veiled threat to hire replacements. At the same time, Brehm said, workers were ″demoralized″ when the Postal Service gave cash awards to four managers for good work in handling survivors’ benefits.

Fowlkes, who recently was promoted and transferred to Oklahoma City, did not attend the House hearing Wednesday. Rep. Mickey Leland, D-Texas, who chaired the hearing, expressed regret that Fowlkes had not been invited to testify.

Reached by telephone at his home in Edmond, a suburb of Oklahoma City, Fowlkes refused to comment.

Biller, the union president, said the Edmond postal workers who survived the massacre ″have faithfully moved the mail since then, but instead of acknowledgement and appreciation, they were rewarded with a crackdown on work rules and had to contend with an utterly cold and insensitive management.″

Leland declared that ″something went terribly wrong″ in the aftermath of the shootout, and Rep. Frank Horton, R-N.Y., said the witnesses’ testimony was ″incredible and appalling.″

″How can the Postal Service expect to have any credibility with the public, the Congress, its own employees, when it cannot keep track of its own actions?″ asked Rep. Frank McCloskey, D-Ind. ″And why should its spokesmen talk of a rate increase in 1988 with this kind of inefficiency in place?″

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