USPS package surge keeps agency afloat, but puts toll on employees

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Despite a financial hit from the coronavirus pandemic, the Postal Service faces a tremendous workload.

USPS has seen mail volume drop 25-to-30% during the pandemic, but about a 60% higher increase in package volume, leading senior agency officials to walk back more dire predictions of when the agency will run out of cash.

While the Postal Service faces an uphill battle to stay solvent, its workforce of more than 600,000 employees has encountered a slew of challenges to keep up with the demand to deliver a volume of packages that sometimes rivals what they handle during the agency’s peak holiday period.

The National Rural Letter Carriers Association, for instance, filed a national-level grievance last month essentially asking the Postal Service to consider the pandemic a “peak season” that would allow rural carriers to receive overtime pay.

The union represents about 120,000 rural carriers that deliver on 78,000 routes nationwide.

The grievance takes issue with the Postal Service’s “failure to provide adequate relief for rural carriers who have been disproportionately affected by the exponential and sustained growth in parcel volumes delivered brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic.”

While NRLCA and USPS have yet to come to an agreement, both parties may have trouble finding common ground after the agency released an internal memo directing employees to cut down on transportation and overtime costs.

Ronnie Stutts, the union’s president, said the current volume of packages has forced some employees to work 12-to-14-hour days but receive pay for a regular eight-hour workday.

Meanwhile, package volume during the pandemic can vary wildly between routes, even for carriers working out of the same post office. Stutts said the volume on some routes has been “sporadic,” but others have an “astronomical” volume of packages.

Rural carriers work under an evaluated pay system, and most mail routes get an annual evaluation based on how long it takes to complete and how much mail it receives. Under this system, Stutts said many routes get evaluated at 40-hours a week, and rural carriers are paid accordingly, while some routes can go as high as 46 hours a week, with some “built-in overtime.”

Either way, that evaluation locks-in the hours and pay a rural carrier receives.

“There would be some days that when the mail volume was light, you might work under your evaluation, but you’d get the same pay. And there would be times when you work over, you would still get the same pay, but for the most part, it evened itself out,” Stutts said.

The union’s labor agreement with USPS allows one exception to those route evaluations during the agency’s peak holiday volume between Thanksgiving and Christmas. During this time, rural carriers who work over their route’s evaluation receive overtime pay.

While USPS staffs up with temporary hires during the holiday season, the agency is dealing with staffing shortages from employees who are recovering from COVID-19, in quarantine, or taking leave to care for children or dependent family members.

Stutts said that about 15-to-20% of rural carriers during one point were unable to report to work during the pandemic.

The same holds true for other postal unions. The American Postal Workers Union estimates 2,000-3,000 of its bargaining unit employees have been diagnosed with COVID-19 and at least 25,000 employees have had to quarantine.

APWU President Mark Dimondstein said USPS cutting down on overtime during the pandemic puts a strain on postal employees as well as customers.

“When you combine a pandemic with short staffing, yes, you’re going have some overtime, and to arbitrarily just say it’s done means that the service that’s coming with that overtime is going to be gone,” Dimondstein said.

Faced with these conditions, NRCLA has proposed USPS sign a memo that would “encourage providing auxiliary assistance to keep rural carriers from exceeding the evaluated work hours of the route and provide compensation at the overtime rate if and when the carrier did exceed the evaluated hours of the route.”

“It was, ‘Let’s do now what we would do during the Christmas period. If we work over our evaluation, we need to be paid for it,’” Stutts said.

However, the union in its grievance states that USPS “has been unwilling to provide any suitable relief” to the issues it has outlined.

During the pandemic, USPS has signed several memos with its unions granting paid sick leave for employees who have tested positive for COVID-19, exhibited symptoms, or have come into direct contact with someone with the virus. USPS has also allowed postal employees to use their sick leave for unexpected childcare needs during the pandemic.

The Postal Service has an obligation to pay overtime to rural carriers who exceed 2,080 hours a year — which comes out to 40 hours a week — but managers are under pressure to ensure that carriers take enough leave during the year to stay under that limit.

The union, as outlined in its grievance, also insists that rural carriers shouldn’t be “expected or required” to use annual leave beyond what they’re normally required to take to meet their route evaluation.

“For the most part, carriers took enough vacation to stay under 2,080 to not have a problem. But with all of these additional work hours that we weren’t normally accustomed to, we’re going to have a lot of carriers that are coming up on it,” Stutts said, “We’re going to have a lot of carriers that are going to be in trouble [and] they’re not going be able to take enough leave to stay under 2,080.”

NRLCA has filed a request for information about the number of hours rural carriers have worked during the pandemic and what messages the Postal Service has sent to rural post offices during the pandemic.

If the union and USPS can’t come to a resolution on the issues outlined in the grievance, Stutts said both parties will bring in a third-party arbitrator to reach a decision.

“It’s not to say we’re not going to work it out, but we just felt like we weren’t being given a fair shake for some things that we’re doing, and we had to do this to protect our people,” Stutts said.

While USPS officials are uncertain about how long this spike in packages will last, Stutts said the increased deliveries have kept the agency afloat.

“I don’t know what the future entails, this package business might continue — and don’t get me wrong, I hope it does. Because it’s a saving grace to the post office, but it’s just the whole world has been turned upside down,” he said. “Nothing is normal like we knew it.”

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