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GPO Employee Claims Discrimination

A Government Printing Office employee has filed an official complaint and is planning to sue the agency for discrimination after her offer of admission to the agency’s Apprentice Program was rescinded.

Debra Colbert, who has worked for the GPO for more than 20 years, said in an interview last week that agency officials took back their job offer because she did not meet the physical requirements needed for the job — despite the fact she had not undergone a physical examination.

“That’s what is really weird to me,” said Colbert, who currently works as a staff assistant in the agency’s safety branch. “My spirit, my heart, tells me there’s something more to this. … I know I’m being discriminated against.”

A GPO spokeswoman declined to comment on Colbert’s specific claim Friday, saying the agency does not respond to inquires on individual personnel manners.

“However, we are confident that the selection process for the Apprentice Program is sound,” said spokeswoman Caroline Scullin. “It is a program of long standing — nearly 70 years — and a program of which we are very proud.”

The program is a four-year commitment designed to supply GPO Plant Operations with a steady stream of employees. Employees accepted into the program go through extensive job training for crafts such as journeyperson printer proofreaders, keyboard operators, offset platemaker strippers, presspersons and bookbinders, she said.

This is the first year the selection process was open to all GPO employees.

Colbert, 45, applied for the program late last year, looking to make more money to help her teenage children pay for college, she said.

In late January, Colbert got word she passed the program’s entrance examination, ranking 25th out of the 282 employees who took part. In February, she was interviewed for the program and was told a few weeks later that she had been accepted.

But in late April, Colbert received a letter rescinding the job offer, based on the fact that she did not meet the physical requirements needed, even though she never had a work-related physical examination.

“I deserve to be in the program,” Colbert said. “I took the exam, I did quite well. They interviewed me, I did quite well.”

Those accepted into the program are required to pass a physical evaluation, which is administered by the agency’s medical division. But because Colbert’s current job falls under the Human Capital department, she was told she would need to go to an outside doctor to get her exam, she said.

Colbert admitted that if she had a physical, she might have even been turned down for the program. Four years ago, she broke her right wrist after she fell on the steps leading into the GPO building, leading to physical therapy. She took medical leave, returning to the agency in August 2004.

Since then, she has had minimal problems, Colbert said. But if a doctor had said she could not do the program because of the injury, she might not feel discriminated against, Colbert added.

“I felt if my impairment would hinder me, I wouldn’t have applied,” she added. “I do a lot of typing. I’m an outstanding typist. It never is a factor.”

Colbert has since filed a formal employment complaint with the GPO and has plans to sue the agency for discrimination, be it for age, race (she is black) or gender.

“If this happened this time, it will happen to someone else,” she said, pointing to four lawsuits filed in January by GPO employees claiming they had been discriminated against based on age, race and gender when they applied for a job.

The cases are still pending in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.

Scullin defended the Apprentice Program’s overall diversity last week, pointing to statistics provided by the GPO’s Equal Employment Opportunity office that show 60 percent of the current apprentice class are female, 93 percent are black, and 43 percent are older than 40 years of age.

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