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Trio strikes back against post office

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By Claude Lewis

Chiefland Postal Clerks Debbie Hamberger, Bonnie George and Kim Poole thought they were doing the right thing when they questioned a sudden change in policy regarding mail box late fees.

Although that order was eventually reversed, Hamberger and George say they are still feeling the repercussions for their act of "whistleblowing" - in a big way.

Hamberger and George are in their fifth week of serving an "emergency suspension without pay." Poole said she has escaped such status because she is officially on sick leave.

Looking at the big picture, all three fear for their jobs.

In these tough financial times, if losing five weeks pay isn't bad enough, the thought of being unemployed is even more harrowing.

Hamberger, a 33-year Postal Service veteran, feels her pension may be threatened. George and Poole, who have been in the U.S. Postal system for 12 years, have similar concerns.

Hamberger and George said the reason they were suspended was because of "workplace intimidation."

Both laugh at the mere mention of that.

Insisting they have done nothing more than stand up for customers' and the public's rights, Hamberger, George and Poole took their protest to the streets. Or in other words, NW 2nd Street across from the Chiefland Post Office, where they set up headquarters for a massive petition-signing campaign.

A "Stop the Injustice" sign acted as a backdrop.

They began their roadside rally last Thursday and were still outside the post office on Monday.

As of Tuesday, Hamberger said they had accumulated more than 600 signatures of support.

All Hemberger, George and Poole want is to be reinstated, to have their jobs back so they can pay their bills. And maybe a big, fat apology.

All U.S. Postal officials will say is that it's an ongoing internal investigation being handled within the system.

Meanwhile, Hamberger and George scrape by week-to-week.

Poole has two young boys at home,

"They're trying to starve us out," Hamberger said.

_ _ _

Hamberger, George and Poole say it all started back in August of last year.

They said then Postmaster Vickie Smith, who has recently been transferred to Fort White, sent a memo regarding late fees on mail boxes.

"We always had a 10-day grace period," George said. "The letter said she was doing away with that and to start charging the $14 late fees immediately. At first, we did it, but Debbie called all the other post offices and found out they weren't doing it. We were charging a fee that doesn't exist. We signed a letter and sent it to the Postmaster General. It ended up that we had to refund money to 20 customers."

But Hamberger, George and Poole said that wasn't the end. They say the postmaster wanted her revenge.

A meeting in a nearby park turned out to be a twist of fate.

Hamberger said that four clerks signed the letter to the Postmaster General.

"There were four of us and we met in the park," Hamberger recalled. "We wanted to make sure we were all OK. We even hugged."

It was after that the four suddenly turned into three.

Talk of Hamberger, George and Poole "threatening" the other employee arose, according to Hamberger.

"Evidently, they (Postal Service officials) put the fear in her," Hamberger said. "They took one person's statement as gospel. They never asked me, Bonnie or Kim. I've been working for the Postal Service for 33 years and have a spotless career record."

Hemberger and George said it all culminated in late May when two federal inspectors from Jacksonville came to the Chiefland Post Office.

"They had guns and handcuffs in plain view to intimidate us," George said. "The inspectors went through our pocketbooks. It was ridiculous. There's no reason for this."

"They didn't tell us why," Hamberger said. "They said they didn't have to."

The next day, Hamberger and George said they were suspended.

Poole said her involvement in the ordeal has even caused stress for husband Daryl.

"An inspector called him and threatened him," she said. "He has nothing to do with it. That's just harassment."

_ _ _

Although Postal workers are backed by the American Postal Workers Union, Florida is a "right to work" state, meaning employees can be fired without reason.

"The union can't help much," George said. "We're on step two of the grievance process. There are three steps."

_ _ _

Bill Tyler, USPS communications program specialist out of Jacksonville, couldn't reveal much about the Hamberger-George case.

"It's an ongoing internal investigation," he said. "We're not allowed to comment. Issues surface as the investigation continues."

He said the investigation has gone beyond the local post office.

Lisa Fletcher, who has been the Chiefland Postmaster since June 21, said the case is "being handled within the parameters of existing labor agreements and protocols guiding investigative matters."