Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Postal worker illustrates problem of employee jury duty fraud

Because it's illegal to fire an employee who misses work for jury duty, companies may be more lax in their examination of jury summonses as excuses for employee absences. As this article from February 14th's Washington Post illustrates, companies should not necessarily accept employees at their word, and when circumstances suggest, dig a little deeper to determine whether that employee is legitimately excused from work.

Neither wind nor rain nor even ice storms kept Joseph S. Winstead from doing his job as a mail processor for the U.S. Postal Service in Washington. But pretending that he was serving on a jury sure did.

Winstead spent 144 days goofing off from his work at the Brentwood mail processing plant -- by telling his boss that the rigors of jury service prevented him from sorting the mail. Over the course of Winstead's hoax, from fall 2003 to fall 2004, court papers show, the Southeast Washington resident collected $31,000 in pay from the U.S. government that he didn't earn.

He listened to months of evidence in a trial of an alleged drug gang. But there were days when the court was in recess, and the jury did not meet -- and Winstead never reported to the Postal Service, which was picking up his salary.

Winstead didn't stay on the jury long enough to render a verdict, getting excused just before deliberations started in April 2004. Even though he no longer was going to court, Winstead continued for months to pretend that he was still serving on that jury, drawing his federal salary, prosecutors said.

And he might have gotten away with it, court papers show -- if he hadn't decided to repeat the scam.

In April 2006, Winstead got another summons and once again he wound up on a federal jury at the courthouse in Washington. This time, he submitted paperwork to his bosses showing he had been serving for 40 days when he really worked a fraction of that time.... Winstead confessed that he fabricated courthouse paperwork and sent it to his supervisor....

But the record ... shows that fooling his employer with fabricated paperwork wasn't that hard.

Jurors who are government employees are entitled to be paid their full salary when they are summoned to court and selected to serve on a jury. Clerks in the federal courthouse provide each juror with signed attendance sheets showing the days they have reported for duty in the courthouse. On some forms, the dates are printed out, on others they are handwritten.

For his troubles, Winstead pleaded guilty to a federal fraud indictment, will serve 8 to 14 months in a federal prison, and must repay $38,923.95 in ill-gotten wages. I'm guessing the Postal Service will not be holding his job for him while he's in prison.

What's troubling from Winstead's tale is just how easy it was for him to fabricate his paperwork. I've had the pleasure of serving jury duty in Cuyahoga County, and the documentation of your service consists of the original summons, and a (not so) fancy certificate you are given at the end of your service to document your time served. There is nothing, however, that documents what specific days or hours one was actually in attendance. It's a pretty scary prospect, especially for the 76% of employers (according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics) who provide paid jury duty leave for their full-time employees. Is it really a big problem that employees are stealing time from their employers when they are supposed to be serving jury duty? My sense is probably not. At the same time, however, there is often real workplace tension caused by an employee's right to serve jury duty without fear of termination or retaliation. Winstead took advantage of that tension, and it is incumbent on employers to ferret out those employees who are trying to game the system to ensure fairness for everyone else.

[Hat tip: ABA Journal]