A published report cites Labor Department records showing the U.S. Postal Service has regularly shortchanged hourly employees. To the tune of nearly $700,000 in back pay. According to our guest, that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Alexia Fernández Campbell is a reporter at the Center for Public Integrity, and she joined Federal Drive with Tom Temin with the rest of the story.
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Tom Temin: Ms. Fernández Campbell, good to have you on.
Alexia Fernández Campbell: It’s great to be here.
Tom Temin: All right. Tell us what you found here with respect to the Postal Service altering timecards put in by letter carriers who had to work overtime just because they have to work overtime.
Alexia Fernández Campbell: Yes, so it was really interesting because I got the Department of Labor data. And I was kind of struck because USPS was one of the employers that had the most violations. So I thought this might be a story to look into. And then so I started talking to letter carriers, I was able to get my hands on the arbitration records showing that this is like a really widespread practice. And it seemed like the common thread here was that supervisors would just change time cards to show letter carriers working fewer hours. Many letter carriers didn’t know about it, some did, and they would try to fight it and file grievances. And even when they did file grievances, they might get their money back. But those supervisors just kept doing it and they wouldn’t get punished.
Tom Temin: I guess the question then arises, do carriers have the right to simply use overtime because they need to finish their work? Or is there some mechanism maybe that they have to check in advance for getting overtime?
Alexia Fernández Campbell: Yup, that’s a good question. Because under federal law, if they’re working overtime, they have to get paid for it. But USPS has precarious financial problems. So what’s happening is USPS does not want to spend on overtime because it’s so expensive. It’s time-and-a-half. But they don’t have enough letter carriers. Right now they’re delivering packages for Amazon. And during the pandemic, that skyrocketed because everyone was ordering online. So now letter carriers are like we can’t finish our routes within eight hours, it’s impossible. So we have to work overtime. So they’re stuck in this situation where their supervisors want them to finish their routes. But it takes so long, but they need to do it with overtime. So they have to take overtime. But yeah, they’re supposed to get approval, but also their supervisors just want them to finish their route.
Tom Temin: So, sounds like the supervisors are also in some sort of a pinch, too, because they have to control the overtime costs. They’re also responsible for the completion of the work in a shift. So it sounds like they’re a little bit squeezed here, too.
Alexia Fernández Campbell: Yeah, it’s like a really, really terrible situation, because USPS leadership is saying, we don’t want you to keep spending billions of dollars on overtime. And supervisors, they’re under a lot of pressure and their annual raises, bonuses all depend on keeping these overtime costs down. So, that’s kind of what letter carriers think is pushing supervisors to start basically stealing their money.
Tom Temin: Yeah, I guess you get what you incentivize is the old story. So, the supervisors then we’re doing what? Someone put in for, say, 46 hours in a week or something. And the supervisors only wanted to pay them 40. What did they do? Did they alter the timecard? Or is this an electronic system? How does this all work mechanically?
Alexia Fernández Campbell: The way it works is the mail carriers, they have these badges that they swipe when they clock in, when they go out on their route, when they finish their route, when they finish other tasks, and then when they leave at the day, they clock out again. So from what I saw from records and interviews, there were different ways that this would happen. The most common was, you just said, that supervisors will go in there and just delete hours, to show them either working 40 hours only, or maybe just they’ll shave off a few hours of overtime, maybe not all of them, but just to keep the costs low. Other times, they would just clock out carriers while they’re out still on the route. So they could actually go into the system and just clock them out. And many times letter carriers weren’t aware of that. And then another situation was that some supervisors just telling mail carriers, hey, if you’re gonna stay out past 6 p.m., which is when everyone’s supposed to be back, then you need to clock yourself out and keep working. So, some of it was very obvious and direct, and other was kind of sneaky.
Tom Temin: We’re speaking with Alexia Fernández Campbell, she’s a reporter at the Center for Public Integrity. Now the Labor Department data that you looked at showed 1,150 cases to the tune of, as we mentioned at the top, nearly $700,000. But you found that one, even those cases weren’t all resolved in a way that looks fair, but that was only part of the problem. So tell us more about what happened with the Labor Department grievances. And then what else you found that went beyond those 1,150 cases.
Alexia Fernández Campbell: The Labor Department violations, it was something I didn’t realize before, but, so let’s say an employee files a complaint with the Labor Department saying hey, for example, USPS owes me this much money, Labor Department will investigate and then, supposedly at the very least Labor Department, if they find it actually did happen, then the employer is supposed to at least pay back the money. And what happens is the Labor Department negotiates with the agency, or at least with USPS they’re doing this. They’re negotiating it so that the USPS only pays back half of it, which doesn’t make sense to me because if by law you’re supposed to pay employees for all their hours, I don’t understand why the Labor Department is negotiating a lower amount. So, that’s what was happening.
Tom Temin: Yeah. Interesting. And then there is the issue of the Association of Letter Carriers — the union — what has that union done to intervene here? Or can they do anything about this?
Alexia Fernández Campbell: So I think the union has a lot of power here. I was surprised that the union was not, at least the top leaders were not very forthcoming. They did not want to talk about this. There are three different postal worker unions. And no one wanted to talk about this. So I ended up having to talk to like lower level union, like union stewards. And so what happens is that these union stewards, they’ve been finding a lot of these timecard changes, and they’ve been taking these cases to arbitration. And they’ll fight it. And they’ll say, look, it’s part of their contract, they’re supposed to fight this in arbitration, so they’ll say, look, these supervisors are changing all these time cards. So the arbitrator will say, yup, so the common thing was arbitrator would say, yes, this is widespread wage theft. Okay, so you need to stop doing this USPS. And then the union will be, yeah, but they haven’t even fired these supervisors or discipline them in any way, we want more than just back pay, and a promise that it won’t happen again. And the arbitrators, I’m sorry, under the contract, we can’t order the USPS to discipline their employees. So that’s how the supervisors keep getting away with it.
Tom Temin: Right, so the arbitrator can issue a finding, but they don’t really have an enforcement mechanism.
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Alexia Fernández Campbell: Exactly, exactly.
Tom Temin: And what did the Postal Service itself tell you when you ask them about this? They must have said something.
Alexia Fernández Campbell: Well, at first they didn’t respond to me and I was like, this is very strange, because usually at least an agency will release a comment. So, I kept following up, I was like, okay, I think you really should at least say something and then USPS is like, okay, we’re gonna get back to you. They didn’t answer all my questions, but they did release a statement saying that they take these kinds of allegations of timecard changes very seriously. So acknowledge that obviously this is happening, and that the messaging from USPS leadership has always been to supervisors that you cannot do that, you cannot change time cards without having a legit reason that’s approved by the letter carriers, and they said that they specifically say that, so, I guess they’re kind of saying it’s not leadership’s fault.
Tom Temin: All right, and what has the reaction been outside of the Postal Service and the arbitrators in the union, have you gotten any reaction, say from the Hill or any other quarters so far?
Alexia Fernández Campbell: You know, it’s interesting because usually I do, with these kind of stories I’ll get reaction from everyone, whatever agency I’m writing about but in this case, I actually got so much response from letter carriers themselves. I’ve never gotten so much response to stories. Mail carriers all across the country telling me, oh my goodness, I didn’t realize that, or thought I was alone, I thought this was just happening to me, I thought I was going crazy, or other saying this has been happening for like 30 years or even retired military you’re saying I had to fight so much, so honestly I’ve been getting more response from within USPS. I haven’t really, at least not that I know of, heard of much response outside.
Tom Temin: And any follow up plans that you’ve got?
Alexia Fernández Campbell: Yeah, so one thing I want to look into is the bonus system because all the mail carriers tell me, yeah, our supervisor making tons of money off these bonuses that they get for keeping overtime costs low, for keeping our routes to run on time. And they’re like, so in a way they’re really benefiting from wage stuff. So, I haven’t been able to confirm those reports, because it’s all been word of mouth, so I’m going to look into see if there’s some way I can show what supervisors are getting out of all this.
Tom Temin: Yeah, sounds like almost robbing Paul to pay Peter.
Alexia Fernández Campbell: Exactly, yeah.
Tom Temin: Alright. Alexia Fernández Campbell is a reporter with the Center for Public Integrity. Thanks so much for joining me.
Alexia Fernández Campbell: Thanks for having me.