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LABOR : Post Office Workers Decry Policy on Discipline : Employees at La Puente facility picket over work conditions. Postmaster says the situation has been exaggerated.

May 18, 1995|DEBORAH SULLIVAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

La Puente mail carrier Waldo Alfaro said he was suspended from work for two weeks for having an open Coke can on his desk.

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Ray Serrano said he was docked two weeks' pay after he missed several days of work while his wife was in labor and when the daughter she gave birth to was ill.

And Sonia Canchola, a shop steward in the La Puente Post Office, was suspended for allegedly complaining that poor work conditions create the kind of tension that "causes some people to go off and come back with guns."

Such complaints and discontent have caused La Puente postal workers to picket the post office twice this month, protesting what they call hostile work conditions and inordinately rigid discipline imposed by Postmaster Hugo Francia. The workers say they hope to draw public attention to their grievances, and ultimately spur a change in the way discipline is handled at their facility.

At the most recent demonstration on Monday, the picketers hoisted placards that read "Put down the whip" and "We need a postmaster, not a dictator."

Francia said the protesting workers are exaggerating the severity of his disciplinary policy.

"We're not issuing massive discipline," he said. "We're only issuing discipline when necessary, when the employees fail to issue mail to our customers."

Francia also won a strong endorsement from one of his supervisors. Art Martinez, district manager for the Santa Ana postal district, which includes Orange County and parts of Los Angeles County, said Francia has turned around operations at the La Puente Post Office.

"Customer service has gone up, operating expenses have gone down, overtime is reduced, and the customer is much happier with the service now," Martinez said. And, he added, the rate of discipline is no higher than that at other offices in the district.

Union officials, however, contend that since Francia took charge of the office three years ago, he has instituted Draconian measures to manage employees, issuing 200 letters of warning and more than 50 suspensions over the past year in an office that employs 300 workers.

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Francia said that far fewer employees were actually disciplined, although he could not say how many. He added that there is a lengthy process of warning letters and discussion before the post office suspends an employee, and that no single infraction of work policy would result in a suspension.

Canchola, the employee who allegedly spoke about bringing a gun to work, denied making such comments. But she said that even if she had done so, the statements should be considered constitutionally protected free speech.

Francia, however, said the post office has strict rules prohibiting workers from making any inflammatory statements about guns in the workplace. "If an employee willfully makes those statements, administrative action will be taken," he said.

Francia said that he has instituted programs to benefit employees, hired 35 workers and reduced overtime by 65% over the past two years--a change that he considers the real root of the workers' complaints.

"I know some are unhappy about not getting the overtime," he said.

But postal employees say the picket is about work conditions, not pay.

"We believe in discipline, but not harsh and unreasonable," said Salvador Zubi, the picket organizer. "We're saying retrain him, fire him, or ask him to be more reasonable."

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