By Jake Rossen
By Jesse Marx
By Michelle LeBow
By Alleen Brown
By Maggie LaMaack
By CP Staff
By Jesse Marx
Jean Sandberg kept a diary when she worked at the central post office in St. Paul. One of the first entries is dated March 4, 1995, 2:45 p.m. "So he came back with a zerox copy of 'This is your brain--this is mine. Any questions?' Of course, the female brain was the size of a pea. And the male brain was the size of a grapefruit. He put a copy into my mailbox."
The handwriting is large and rounded, peppered with phrases in capital letters, underlined sections, exclamation points. Sometimes the words are precise and separate. Sometimes they're misspelled. Sometimes they blur into each other, extensions of a frenetic, scribbling hand. Hundreds of pages detailing the harassment, shouting, profanity, and sexual comments that she says buzzed around her desk. Hundreds of pages describing events at work that whittled away at her confidence and her sanity, every day for ten years.
April 4, 1995, 10:55 p.m.: "Here, why don't you enter this Wet Tea-Shirt contest," Sandberg wrote after a female co-worker handed her a card advertising a contest at a St. Paul bar. "Her remarks were harassing--sarcastic undertones regarding my body and appearance."
April 6, 1995, 8:15 p.m.: A co-worker asks a supervisor if he has a cure for the rash on Sandberg's face. The supervisor turns to Sandberg and says, "JISSM!...LOT'S OF IT! ...SMEAR IT ALL OVER YOUR FACE!" He "continued to go on and on about 'squirting it all over,' as he was rubbing his body all over." All of these allegations would later turn up in a lawsuit Sandberg filed.
The St. Paul post office was part of Sandberg's life long before she took a job there. In 1975 she married a postal-service employee, and over time she came to know some of his co-workers. In 1987 one of them, Mary Alt, suggested that Sandberg try to transfer to the U.S. Postal Service from the investigations division of the Internal Revenue Service, where she worked at the time. Despite her limited education--a high school diploma and only a few college credits--a job at the postal service would offer security, a respectable paycheck, the protection of a labor union, and good benefits. On top of that, Alt said, Sandberg's computer skills would make her an excellent candidate for promotion. On July 29, 1989 Sandberg made the move. She was hopeful, eager to impress. Perhaps if all went well she would end up working in postal inspections--a job she saw as a plum.
Things didn't go well, though, and 11 years later it's clear that hope has drained from Sandberg's ashen face. At 44, she is just over five feet tall, stocky and overweight. She pulls back long, straight blond hair into a ponytail, away from her plain, heart-shaped face. A gentleness resides in her blue eyes, hidden behind wire-rimmed glasses. But her smile has been eroded by years of angry stares and stony silences from her co-workers, the endless red tape accompanying the complaints she filed, the depositions, the psychological examinations she was ordered to undergo, the lawsuit she carried through to trial. Though she won that suit, she looks more victim than victor.
For years she reported lewd and disruptive behavior to her managers, only to find herself ostracized by her co-workers and branded a troublemaker by her bosses. Eventually she took her complaints to the postal-service division responsible for investigating discrimination complaints. But because the post office is a government bureaucracy, she discovered that the watchdogs have little power to help its employees. Her complaints languished, she says, while her supervisors took her to task for lodging them.
After nearly a decade of the ordeal, Sandberg had grown so shaky and fearful that her doctor told her to take a medical leave. When she was able to return to work in December 1998, the post office's doctors recommended that she not be made to work in her old department because of the stress. Although she qualified for several other postal-service positions, she wasn't offered a transfer. After a while, Sandberg stopped going to work and on December 11, 1999, the post office fired her for not showing up. Her grievances, meanwhile, were making their way through the federal court system, and in March a jury found that the post office had illegally retaliated against Sandberg for complaining about her working conditions. The postal service is considering appealing the decision.
The jury awarded Sandberg less than $81,000 in damages--a far cry from the multimillion-dollar jackpots won by fictional victims in the movies and on TV legal dramas. The check--if she ever sees it--will barely cover the debt she has incurred since she lost her $41,000-a-year job, much of it the expense of pursuing her lawsuit. It's certainly not the kind of windfall that will enable her to launch a different career; in fact, Sandberg says it probably won't even help her stave off bankruptcy. For now, her losses--her career, her marriage, her home, her smile--still overwhelm her.
Almost two months after the end of her trial, Sandberg sits in the living room of her Maplewood town home, holding a newsletter from the American Postal Workers Union. In it there's an article about sexual harassment, explaining that if employees experience it, they should report it to a supervisor, they should document the incident. Sandberg scoffs at the words. "The second you report in this system, they identify you and you become the victim," she says, her voice an angry tremble. "They can publish it, post it, but the reality is, I did all of this and more--and more--and I only became a victim of management. It's not worth the paper it's printed on, because there's no enforcement."