Postal Service prodded -- once again -- to do more with less

Staffing levels at the Postal Service took center stage at a House hearing on the struggling agency's finances on Thursday, as lawmakers prodded USPS to strike a balance between streamlining its workforce while ensuring employees' jobs are substantive and stable.

"You have to find people meaningful work, or no matter how compassionate you are, you're not doing them any favors," said Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., the ranking member of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, criticizing holding rooms where underemployed postal workers wait until there are tasks for them to perform. "How many billions of dollars would have been saved if you'd aggressively right-sized the force before you came to us and said you want to go from six days [of mail delivery] to five?"

From fiscal years 2007 to 2009, the agency slashed 84,000 full- and part-time jobs, and USPS' proposal to move from six days of mail delivery to five would cut an additional 40,000 full-time positions.

Postmaster General John Potter acknowledged "as the volume has declined, we no longer have eight-hour jobs in all locations," but he said the move toward shorter days was not driven by a preference for part-time workers, but rather by changes in work processes such as automated mail sorting. Potter also noted employees still could build careers at the Postal Service by working fewer hours.

Potter said he hoped negotiations with the agency's unions this year would win him the flexibility to reduce the workforce where necessary, and to move to part-time jobs and create more elastic positions that allow employees to perform multiple functions. The Postal Service, backed by the Government Accountability Office, is asking Congress to pass legislation that would require an arbitrator to take the USPS' financial situation into account when making decisions affecting labor and management.

Issa told Potter during his opening statement that the Postal Service has "more or less a third more people than you need," but he said it "is not really acceptable" to convert full-time jobs to part-time positions, unless applicants are looking specifically for part-time work or part-time positions that lead to full-time work. Rep. Diane Watson, D-Calif., said she was concerned that part-time workers might not be treated fairly or could be excluded from collective bargaining agreements. She said she hoped part-time employees still would be able to earn good benefits, and Potter confirmed that if they planned to work for the Postal Service long-term that was possible.

Issa and other committee Republicans said they were skeptical of rapid growth in federal employment, generally. But Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, ranking member on the House Oversight and Government Reform federal workforce panel, suggested agencies seeking employees might be encouraged to hire postal workers, simultaneously meeting their own staffing needs and reducing the size of the USPS workforce. Issa suggested that postal workers could carry out much of the 2010 census work.

Chaffetz said he would seek authority for the Postal Service to begin a process similar to the Base Realignment and Closure assessments to help determine which post offices should be shuttered.

Lawmakers insisted repeatedly that even as the Postal Service confronts harsh financial realities, the agency must taken into consideration the jobs of postal workers.

"I'm hopeful this committee will find a way to deal with it that preserves the good faith that the people who serve the U.S. Postal Service have a right to expect," said Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio.

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