Watchdog urges Postal Service managers to support cost-cutting initiative

A three-year-old program to place injured workers in productive jobs has saved the U.S. Postal Service money, but it has been implemented slowly and without enough support from management, according to a new report from the Government Accountability Office.

GAO praised the National Reassessment Process as an "important step" in ensuring USPS finds appropriate positions for workers with job-related injuries. The watchdog agency noted, however, that managers must emphasize the importance of the program, under which workers either receive meaningful assignments they can perform despite their injuries or a referral to the Labor Department's Office of Workers' Compensation Programs.

"Absent upper management's clearly articulated support for the initiative, specified time frames for its completion, and information about NRP's relative priority compared to competing … initiatives, area and district managers' commitment to NRP's timely implementation has varied," the report (GAO-10-78) stated.

The program hasn't been fully implemented in any of the 74 postal districts, according to GAO.

The report comes as USPS continues to scramble for ways to save money in the face of the recession, a shift away from paper mail toward the Internet and congressional requirements that it pre-fund retirement accounts. Finding modified work assignments for injured employees wasn't difficult when mail volume was high, according to GAO. But as volume dropped and tasks were automated, USPS relegated some of those workers to what agency insiders call "make-work assignments," such as answering phones or greeting customers, the report said.

The watchdog questioned USPS' assertion that it saved $146 million through the program in fiscal 2008, noting that figure was an estimate and didn't account for all of NRP's costs. For instance, the agency failed to factor in possible costs to the workers' compensation office if the program resulted in more referrals there.

GAO recommended that the Postal Service set clear deadlines for districts to finish implementing the program, find better ways to track how well NRP is doing, and ensure all costs and benefits are included in future savings estimates.

In a response, Anthony Vegliante, chief human resources officer and executive vice president of USPS, said deadlines could cause district managers to rush reviews and channel employees with job-related injuries into ill-conceived jobs.

"We implemented the NRP with an end goal in sight; however, we fully understood that the stakeholders in our process were many and varied and that we would have to constantly address new issues as they surfaced even at the expense of an on-time completion," he wrote. "We do not believe that setting an arbitrary deadline for district completion of this process is in the best interest of our employees."

Vegliante disagreed with GAO's assessment that USPS' methods of tracking success were inadequate. But he said the agency would follow the watchdog's recommendation to produce more comprehensive cost estimates.

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