Carolyn Kaster/AP

Postal Service Forced to Pay Overtime for Employees Taking Time Off to Campaign in 2016 Election

Management pressured local supervisors to allow employees to take time off, IG finds.

The U.S. Postal Service spent $90,000 on overtime to cover for employees who took time off to campaign in advance of the 2016 election, according to a new report.

Unionized postal workers are allowed to take unpaid leave to engage in official activities on behalf of their labor groups, according to the USPS inspector general, but the agency did not follow proper protocols to ensure it should have granted the time off.  Ninety-seven letter carriers across the country took leave without pay to “participate in political activities on behalf of” the National Association of Letter Carriers in the months leading up to the November election.

While the practice of allowing employees to take leave without pay to conduct union business is legal, a spokesperson for the Office of Special Counsel said it is coordinating with the Postal Service’s IG to determine whether any of the employees violated the Hatch Act. The IG found in its initial report the employees disproportionately took time off -- about 82 percent of the cumulative 2,776 days -- in political battleground states in which NALC had endorsed candidates.

Facility and district managers grant postal workers leave without pay requests based on the needs of both the employee and the Postal Service, as well as potential costs to the agency. In the cases in question, the USPS headquarters labor relations manager of policies and programs flouted the standard procedures by directing local labor relations leaders to allow each of the 97 employees to take leave, according to the inspector general. Headquarters did not coordinate the leave requests with the proper staff to ensure that the employees taking off would not be disruptive to local operations.

In fact, the IG found local supervisors had originally raised concerns about the operational impact of the employees’ leave, but they were ignored. In some cases, the employees’ supervisors declined the requests before higher-level managers overruled them. NALC officials provided their members with documentation that they would be taking off for political activity in order to support their requests for leave. Some managers cited to the inspector general the Postal Service’s history of allowing employees to participate in political activity and the “organizational culture of supporting relationships with the union” in justifying their decisions.

Still, the IG faulted USPS for failing to properly consider operational issues and recommended management stick to its own policies already in place in the future. They also said the Operations and Labor Relations personnel should better coordinate with their counterparts in Operations before granting extended leave without pay for union activity.

Postal management admitted they have a “long-standing practice” to allow union employees to take time off of work to engage in get out the vote-type activities, but denied headquarters staff circumvented agency policy. Management also questioned the $90,000 the IG said USPS had to spend to cover for the absent employees, calling the figure “potentially inaccurate and misleading.”  The IG stuck by its claims and “carefully assessed” estimates, and called management’s contention that the Postal Service would have incurred other costs if it had denied the leave requests “unsubstantiated.”  

Fredric Rolando, president of NALC, said the union has not been privy to the underlying data the IG used in the report.