Post office workers share examples of alleged racial harassment in workplace
After an October 2014 argument with his supervisor in the vehicle repair shop of U.S. Post Office in Charlotte, Robert Bolick fumed to his co-workers, according to postal disciplinary documents detailing the incident.
“Somebody needs to calm that black m-----f----- down,” Bolick said, according to the documents obtained by the Observer.
Bolick, then a mechanic with more than two decades of service in the vehicle maintenance facility in west Charlotte, denied using the slur. Nonetheless, he was cited for violating the U.S. Postal Service’s zero-tolerance policy on workplace violence by making “a racist, offensive and derogatory remark” about his temporary boss, Rodney Carelock.
The alleged outburst was considered so severe that in November 2014, Bolick received a “notice of removal,” which informed him that he would be fired within 30 days, a copy of the document shows.
Four years later, Bolick still has his job. His 2014 termination was reduced to a two-week suspension.
Recent federal court filings show that Bolick is among a group of postal mechanics and supervisors accused by two African-American co-workers of a long-running conspiracy of on- and off-the-job intimidation — much of it with racial overtones.
In May, Carelock and Joshua Webb, both black, took the unusual step of going before a Gaston County judge to seek no-contact orders against Bolick and three other garage co-workers, Shawn McCray, Chris Beck and Kenneth Shaw. All four are white.
In sworn statements accompanying their motions, Carelock and Webb said they have been threatened, assaulted and stalked at their homes and second jobs. At work, they say, they have been targeted with racist slurs and signs along with other forms of harassment.
The pair turned to the courts, they say, because their supervisors — and the federal government — failed to step in.
In interviews with the Observer, five current or former colleagues of Carelock and Webb — each of them white — confirm their accounts of mistreatment. While the post office says on its website that “diversity and inclusion are a part of the fabric of the organization,” workers say racial harassment at the Charlotte garage has gone unchecked for years.
“They’re still fighting the Civil War down here,” says Brendan Harris, who says he left the Charlotte garage in 2016 after five years due to what he described as intolerable working conditions.
“They didn’t like Rodney because he’s black. They didn’t like Josh because he’s black. It didn’t take a rocket scientist to see that it’s racism.”
Carelock says sticky notes bearing the N-word have been left on his computer keyboard at work. A doll — a black monkey —with a noose around its neck was positioned at another black employee’s work station, Carelock and three other workers say.
In what Carelock considers the worst of the harassment, copies of a 2009 assault charge filed and then dropped against him and his wife — which included the police mugshots of both — were posted throughout the garage, numerous employees say.
The Observer also has obtained a copy of a doctored newspaper photograph of President Barack Obama with a bull’s eye drawn on his forehead that Carelock and two of his co-workers say was hung on Carelock’s tool box. Another photo shows a hand-made, cardboard sign with a racist slogan that workers say was also left at Carelock’s work station.
In July, Carelock and Webb dropped their requests for no-contact orders after the U.S. Attorney’s Office, which was defending Bolick, McCray, Beck and Shaw, successfully had the cases moved to federal court. In various court filings, Assistant U.S. Attorney Jim Sullivan described several of Webb and Carelock’s legal complaints as frivolous.
Carelock and Webb say they have already spent thousands in legal fees and could not afford the estimated $20,000 in new costs that would have resulted from arguing their cases in federal court. Meanwhile, the men they accuse of harassment were defended at taxpayer expense.
“We had to pay for our defense, and we had to pay for theirs, too,” Webb says.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office, which is required by law to defend federal employees named in civil complaints, refused to comment for this story.
Last month, the postal service also ordered Carelock and Webb to shut down a GoFundMe page they had set up to defray their legal costs, and to return more than $800 in donations.
In an Aug. 17 letter, USPS deputy managing counsel Ladonna L. Griffith-Lesesne told Carelock and Webb that they had improperly used a photograph of themselves in their post office uniforms and had violated government policies by collecting money from the public. Friends of Carelock and Webb have since reposted the page using different photographs of the pair.
Meanwhile Carelock, 47, says the on-the-job harassment at the post office’s garage, is worsening. He told the Observer that in five-plus years on the job, he has been targeted by racial slurs from co-workers at least 100 times. Now, he says in court documents, some of his co-workers are regularly driving by his home.
“This thing has been unleashed to another level,” Carelock says. “Complaint after complaint to the post office and nothing is getting done. I think the lives of my wife and kids are in danger. What do I do now?”
Webb, 31, who joined the Charlotte postal garage in 2015, says he recently relocated his family from Belmont to another city out of fear for their safety.
Citing security concerns, Webb says he has not worked or been paid for most of August. In an internal post office document submitted to his bosses, Webb said, “I don’t feel safe.”
“Things keep escalating,” Webb told the Observer. “I see the hatred. I see the levels to where people will go to intimidate and stoke fear in you. I have said it over and over again to anyone who will listen ... ‘You guys know this is happening. You know this is not an apparition. You know this is not made up.’”
‘Pre-Civil War relic’
The vehicle maintenance facility on Scott Futrell Drive in west Charlotte employees about 30 people, who repair postal vehicles across the Charlotte region and in parts of South Carolina.
Details of the post office’s response to the claims of longtime harassment are unclear.
The U.S. Postal Service refused to answer Observer questions, saying through a Charlotte spokesman that “Consistent with postal policy and federal law, we do not comment on personnel matters.”
A spokesman for the U.S. Postal Service’s investigative arm, the Office of the Inspector General in Washington, D.C., said the agency has no record of any investigations stemming from complaints filed by Carelock or Webb.
The Observer received a July 2017 email from the OIG notifying Webb that his “concern” has been “received and documented.” Asked about the apparent discrepancy, the OIG spokesman said the agency has multiple departments that may have handled Webb’s email but that there is no evidence that an investigation took place
Shawn Bennett, the postal service’s manager of vehicle operations for the Carolinas and parts of Georgia, said Thursday he could not comment, given the “ongoing litigation” involved.
Jo-Anna Freeman, the manager of the Charlotte post office garage when Carelock and Webb filed their complaints in court, did not respond to phone calls. In mid-June, two weeks after Carelock and Webb first appeared before a judge, the U.S. Postal Service announced that Freeman, who is African-American, had been transferred to Winston-Salem to run the garage there.
Reached by phone Thursday, Freeman’s replacement, Kenneth Robinson, referred questions to the United State Postal Service.
Repeated Observer efforts to reach Bolick, Beck, McCray and Shaw were not successful.
In a sworn statement filed with the original court case, Shaw, a garage supervisor, said he had never threatened, intimidated or followed Webb at the garage, as Webb alleged in his original filing. In a separate affidavit, Shaw said Carelock’s allegations that Shaw had “bumped” Carelock at work and followed him to his second job at a Belmont auto parts store were not true.
Both Carelock and Webb have filed complaints with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission office in Charlotte over allegations that date back years, according to their attorney, Humphrey Cummings of Charlotte. A veteran of employment law, Cummings says he’s has never handled a case that compares to “the duration, intensity and the apparent vitriol” directed at Carelock and Webb.
Moreover, he describes the post office’s system for handing employee complaints as a “long and arduous minefield of procedural technicalities.
“It’s disturbing and surprising and frustrating and shocking to me that the U.S. Postal Service, as an employer, relies almost exclusively on legal maneuvers to carry out personnel operations,” Cummings says. “They simply do not look toward making this a place where the work gets done but also where people who do the work are treated ... with respect.”
In a May 31 email exchange with Sullivan, the federal prosecutor, Cummings questioned whether the post office was more interested in “building a defense” against Carelock’s and Webb’s allegations or if it wanted to learn “whether there is an improper work culture condoning or promoting racial bias, racial harassment or a retaliatory, hostile and abusive environment.”
In internal documents dating to 2014, the garage workers trade charges and counter charges of harassment, assault and other forms of mistreatment. The working conditions are described repeatedly as threatening and adversarial, with the back-and-forth revealing bitter divisions based on shift, seniority and race that several employees say their bosses had largely ignored.
“We wouldn’t even stand next to each other because even if you brushed up next to someone they would run to the boss and say, ‘he hit me,’’’ said John Cangemi, who left the garage in 2016. “Anybody that hangs out with Rodney is kind of shunned away.”
Webb told the Observer that during his first days on the job, he was warned by Bolick to avoid Carelock but refused. In sworn statements to the post office and courts, Webb says he has been subjected to two years of verbal threats and physical intimidation from Bolick, Beck, Shaw and McCray. If he complains, Webb says he faces threats of retaliation.
Webb believes race is an underlying factor. In a 2017 affidavit filed with the post office, he says Beck, then a supervisor, treated him and Carelock “as if we’re contemptible items he has to deal with.”
According to the affidavit, Webb says Beck “went ballistic” on April 11, 2017, when Carelock asked for his work assignments for the day. Webb, who witnessed the argument, says Beck later told him he “would pay dearly” if he reported that Beck had threatened Carelock.
“I walked into a place that is something out of the 1950s and ‘60s, a relic, a pre-Civil Rights Era relic. ... The hatred and animus is at such a level that it has poisoned the entire shop,” Webb says.
“If it was just racism, I’d put my head down and just move on. But it’s a systemic problem. No matter who we tell, nothing really happens.”
The atmosphere in the garage appears to have become more combative after Carelock became a temporary supervisor in October 2014, according to internal documents and interviews with Carelock and the five current or former employees.
“That’s when the nooses and the hanging monkey and all sorts of stuff started happening. They said they weren’t going to work for a n-----,” says William Goins, who says he retired in 2015 after 16 years in the garage.
“Every time Rodney went to a supervisor they wouldn’t do nothing. I couldn’t understand it. ... They’re preaching diversity, and that discrimination won’t be tolerated, and then when it happened, they won’t do anything about it.”
Co-workers critical of Carelock said he was not adequately trained or qualified to be a manager and was too confrontational, according to an internal document from those days.
In 2015, Carelock was put on emergency suspension for two months after he says he was accused of threatening Kenneth Shaw, his supervisor at the time. Carelock says the allegation was a lie and that he filed a formal grievance with the American Postal Workers Union. The dispute was settled in August 2016 with an admission in writing from the post office that Carelock’s suspension had violated the union contract. Carelock, according to the settlement document, received almost $7,800 in return for dropping his complaint.
Rodney Johnston, another former garage employee, told the Observer that Carelock became a target of many of the first-shift mechanics.
Johnston said one of his co-workers “told me on a couple of occasions that he wasn’t leaving until ‘that n----- got fired.’ There was definitely a racial intent.”
According to post office mechanic Chris Corsaro, some of the garage’s veteran, day-shift workers “fought Rodney on everything ... The guy would be giving a talk and another guy would start shouting, ‘I don’t have to listen to you, boy.’”
In the internal report regarding a 2016 confrontation between Carelock and McCray, Bolick singled out Carelock as a chronic trouble-maker.
“All this racial issue was not a problem till Carelock came here,” Bolick said, according to the report. “Something will happen here if nothing is done about him. We got problems.”
Joe Williams, then a lead automotive technician with more than two decades in the shop, agreed, saying that Carelock “told us that all day shift people are racist,” according to the same report.
“When Carelock’s not here, the whole atmosphere is good,” Williams said, according to the report. Williams said he came across the 2009 arrest reports of Carelock and his wife, posted in a bathroom. “I threw it away since I felt it was something we all didn’t need to know. ... Tensions are high enough. Just waiting to snap.”
The 2014 incident involving Bolick’s reported use of a racial epithet occurred not long after Carelock became Bolick’s boss.
According to Bolick’s disciplinary memo on Nov. 24, 2014, Carelock moved Bolick’s tool box from its normal spot to make room for another mechanic. Bolick erupted and slurred Carelock, according to the memo.
“Your egregious conduct cannot be tolerated. ... Removal is appropriate even on a first offense,” then-garage manager Stuart Senecal wrote to Bolick.
But within weeks of being told he was to be fired, Bolick’s punishment changed. In Senecal’s follow-up memo on Jan. 14, 2015, Bolick’s termination had been reduced to a 14-day suspension.
According to a document detailing the incident, Bolick denied making any racist or derogatory statements. “I didn’t say nothing to nobody about him,” he said, according to the document.
Senecal did not respond to an Observer email seeking comment.
Unlike some of the others who have left the Charlotte postal garage, Carelock and Webb say they intend to stay, though Webb adds:
“We’re getting to the end of the road for what we can put up with.”
Researcher Maria David contributed.