Postal workers sometimes characterize the U.S. Postal Service as a vast bureaucracy indifferent to their gripes. But that’s not always the case. Consider what happened to Thomas Purviance, a longtime USPS employee in St. Louis, who complained about a potential safety hazard in one of the agency’s facilities: According to a recently filed lawsuit, his managers at the USPS responded by accusing him of being a terrorist.
On July 18 the U.S. Department of Labor sued the USPS, claiming the Postal Service retaliated against Purviance, a maintenance worker with 35 years experience on the job who had the nerve to call 911 after his superior dismissed Purviance’s concerns about what he feared was a carbon monoxide leak on the premises. The Labor Department says the alleged retaliation violated the Occupational Safety and Health Act, which permits employees to contact the authorities when they feel their working conditions are unsafe.
According to the suit, Purviance’s superiors didn’t appreciate his wish to put safety first:
“When the 9-1-1-dispatched response arrived at the [Network Distribution Center], USPS managers immediately characterized Mr. Purviance to the responders as a ‘disgruntled employee,’ said that they suspected Mr. Purviance of making a false report, and that they suspected Mr. Purviance of being a threat to sabotage the NDC building, despite the lack of any factual basis for the allegation that Mr. Purviance was a threat in any way.”
That was only the beginning of Purviance’s troubles. According to the suit, the USPS tried to get the local prosecutor’s office to put him in jail, calling him “a drug user, dangerous, unstable and a ‘terrorist,’ all without any factual basis.” In April 2010, says the suit, Purviance was arrested and charged with making a terroristic threat and filing a false report. He spent 18 hours in jail before his attorney got him out. The USPS then tried to have Purviance fired.
The charges were all dropped in 2011 by the St. Louis County prosecutor’s office. Only then did the USPS abandon the removal process. Now the agency is defending itself against the Department of Labor suit, which chastises the Postal Service for waging an “extended campaign of public disparagement against” Purviance, and argues that he had every right to dial 911.
The USPS has this to say about the Department of Labor suit: “The U.S. Postal Service cares very much about our employees and we always place employee safety as a top priority. As this matter is the subject of ongoing litigation, we are unable to comment further.” According to the lawsuit, Purviance remains on the job but is still owed lost wages and the money he spent on attorneys’ fees.