AWOL employees is a vexing problem for the Postal Service

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It’s bad enough when employees don’t show up for work. For the Postal Service, it’s a perpetual problem. Managers can plan and budget for vacations, even contingencies like sick days. But what about absent without leave, or AWOL? This turns out to be a prickly management challenge. For some management lessons learned, the Federal Drive with Tom Temin turned to the Postal Service’s deputy assistant inspector general, Jason Yovich.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin: Mr. Yovich, good to have you on.

Jason Yovich: Good morning, Tom. Thanks for having me.

Tom Temin: And you looked at the AWOL problem, and it turns out that it’s somewhat smaller than perhaps the Postal Service managers are reporting. But it’s still a problem. And let’s talk about what it is you found with respect to their ability to classify people not being there for the right reason and therefore being able to manage it better.

Jason Yovich: Well, first off, our objective in the audit was to assess how the Postal Service was managing employees and an AWOL status to identify opportunities to timely address employees in AWOL status and manage cost. And for background, AWOL employees, it’s a non-pay status that results from a determination that no leave type, you know, including leave without pay, etc, can be granted, either because the employee did not obtain advanced authorization or request leave that was denied. So these AWOL absences may be used as a basis for disciplinary action. And to accomplish our objective, we leveraged and analyzed nationwide employee leave data including AWOL from October 2017 through September 2020. And we visited 24 Postal Service sites. In each of the areas we selected one Postal Service district with a high number of AWOL hours per person and another district with a low number of AWOL hours per person. This was to get a good representation of both situations.

Tom Temin: Sounds like you had a pretty good base of data then because that’s a long period and a lot of people.

Jason Yovich: We wanted to get a representation of the pre-COVID environment and also the environment that the Postal Service was dealing with during the pandemic. So yes, three years, we felt was a good representation.

Tom Temin: All right, and what were your top line findings here, then?

Jason Yovich: So let me first say that we completely understand and recognize the challenges the Postal Service faced during the pandemic and applaud them for their efforts, especially during this time. With that said, we identified two areas for improvement to timely address employees in AWOL status and better manage costs. So first, there are opportunities for the Postal Service facility managers and supervisors to improve their management of AWOL employees. So specifically, they didn’t always properly record AWOL hours, they used different guidance on how to execute progressive discipline for employees. And they didn’t always collect or retain the supporting documentation for employees in AWOL. So that’s the first issue. And the second issue was management did not always include all AWOL employees’ disciplinary and health benefit documentation in their personnel folders. About 90% of the sampled employees on extended AWOL did not have all the disciplinary actions or health benefit documentation in their folders. So that was a little difficult for us during the audit. So although the Postal Service has specific criteria detailing on which disciplinary and health benefit documents should be maintained, management retains some of the documentation hardcopy, and then some of it was electronic, so it was a bit of a mixed bag there. And the Postal Service personnel did not always monitor or verify whether all appropriate AWOL employees’ disciplinary and health benefit documentation was actually uploaded to this folder. And management did not incorporate a timeline of these administrative actions for about 37% of the sampled employees after taking disciplinary action. So the Postal Service did not have a specific policy on detailing what administrative actions needed to be documented.

Tom Temin: We’re speaking with Jason Yovich. He’s deputy assistant inspector general at the U.S. Postal Service, and what is the extent in terms of man hours or payroll and so forth? What does this all cost the postal service every year?

Jason Yovich: So the effect on postal service operations is a very good point and the crux of our audit, too. So three main aspects. So first, as I stated earlier, whenever employees are unable their job responsibilities still need to be completed. So AWOL employees can affect a facility’s overtime hours and employee morale and create additional work for other employees who are not absent and working. And this could lead to increased overtime for the Postal Service and other health and safety issues. Secondly, by not improving the management of AWOL employees, the Postal Service risks making procedural errors and wasting resources when trying to prepare and issue discipline letters to correct employee behavior. We estimated that the Postal Service paid nearly $3.8 million annually in health benefit premiums for employees who remain on extended AWOL status, which means longer than 60 calendar days. And lastly, when employee administrative actions and health benefit documents are not properly maintained, future disciplinary actions and health benefit enrollment and termination can be delayed, which also hinders the Postal Service. So when management does not document employee administrative actions, they may not be able to provide the support when these administrative actions are actually issued.

Tom Temin: Did it strike the inspector general’s office? Did it strike you that there are too many people that are just simply walking off, because that’s when I think of AWOL, I think of something very different from say someone on disability, or someone who maybe have gotten the COVID disease and calls in and says, you know, I’m going to be out for a couple of weeks, that would be I presume, an excused not being on the job.

Jason Yovich: That’s a good point. And this has been an issue for the Postal Service over the years and the nature of their business, but also there was an increase during the COVID pandemic. So the issue of AWOL has been in probably will always be an issue for the Postal Service, but it is imperative that they are managing those employees in an AWOL status proactively.

Tom Temin: Right. So that means you have to document everything in a uniform way. And I wanted to get to that idea of the lack of uniformity and how things are dealt with and how people are communicated with from facility to facility. Aren’t there national policies for that?

Jason Yovich: There are overarching policies, but what we did find that there was inconsistent policies at the district and facility levels of how that was being actually implemented. So one of our recommendations is to review and ensure the disciplinary guidance is actually consistent for the Postal Service. And that is a challenge because of the nature of their business and dealing with labor relations and unions, etc. That there is a case by case basis aspect for disciplinary action. However, our audit emphasized the need for more consistent disciplinary guidance for its managers and supervisors.

Tom Temin: That was my next question, is the way that the Postal Service deals with AWOL, Is that part of the bargaining agreements that they have with the different unions?

Jason Yovich: No. And that was not in the scope of the audit of looking about how the Postal Service has negotiated with the unions. That wasn’t in the scope of this audit.

Tom Temin: OK, and any other recommendations that you think are important here?

Jason Yovich: Absolutely. We made a series of recommendations to strengthen the management of AWOL employees and promote operational efficiency and manage costs for the Postal Service. And this included clarifying policy on how to appropriately record for AWOL employees. As I said before, the review and ensuring disciplinary guidance is consistent, providing training for managers and supervisors to manage employees in an AWOL status, emphasizing the importance for managers to complete and timely review and maintain AWOL employee attendance, disciplinary and health benefit documentation. Verify all appropriate AWOL employees’ disciplinary and health benefit documentation is reviewed. And then lastly, ensure that guidance on the internal websites for all of the managers and supervisors is current and it’s updated on a regular basis when appropriate, and ensure that the appropriate documentation is included in the employee personnel folders.

Tom Temin: I imagine if employees know that this is being tracked carefully and that the benefits would be correctly cut off exactly when they can be, that might even help reduce some of the AWOL problem.

Jason Yovich: That is a good point. That would definitely be a contributing factor in improving this is the communication with the employees, understanding that the managers and supervisors are on top of this.

Tom Temin: Jason Yovich is deputy assistant inspector general at the U.S. Postal Service. Thanks so much for joining me.

Jason Yovich: Thanks, Tom. Thanks for having me.

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