More USPS Employees Are Quitting and Workers Are Protesting Understaffing
Postal management has stressed better working conditions for employees, but one protester says, "People are better to their dogs."
The U.S. Postal Service is losing a whopping 59% of its early tenure employees per year, according to a new report, which employees say is creating a staffing crisis and souring morale at many locations around the country.
Postal employees across the country staged protests outside their facilities in recent days, saying poor treatment of staff and a lack of priority on hiring has led to toxic work environments. Particularly within post offices and other forward-facing positions, they said, staffing shortfalls have caused longer wait times and otherwise reduced service for customers.
Postmaster General Louis DeJoy has made it a priority to decrease USPS’ reliance on non-career employees and to improve working conditions for those who remain. DeJoy has found some success in his efforts, converting more than 125,000 such workers into career roles since October 2020. Most new field employees hired to USPS begin in a “non-career” status, meaning they earn less generous benefits and often work irregular schedules. Currently, about 18% of the USPS workforce is non-career.
In 2010, the Postal Service began increasingly relying on non-career workers, such as postal support employees, mailhandler assistants and carrier assistants, as a cheaper alternative to reduce labor costs as part of efforts to keep pace with shrinking mail revenue. The agency's non-career staff grew by more than 60% between 2010 and 2017.
That growth came with some additional costs, however, as the reduced compensation and lack of a regular schedule caused many employees to leave more quickly. That in turn led to more hiring, onboarding and training expenses. In his 10-year business plan to get USPS out of the red, DeJoy called attrition levels for the non-career workforce “unacceptably high” and vowed to address it. In fiscal 2020, before DeJoy’s plan went into effect, USPS missed its goal of 32.5% turnover and instead saw a 40% rate. By fiscal 2022, that number had spiked to nearly six in 10 employees leaving, according to a recent inspector general report.
Postal management set the goal in fiscal 2022 of retaining 50.5% of non-career workers after one year of service, but instead was able to keep 47.8%. In a survey of a small sample of non-career workers, the IG found 21% of the employees said they worked more than 12-hour days after their first month on the job during which time such extended shifts are prohibited. Seventeen percent said they worked for 12 consecutive days.
“Working long hours and the lack of schedule flexibility may lead to employee fatigue, which could affect employee morale, reduce productivity, and increase turnover,” the IG said.
Dave Partenheimer, a USPS spokesman, pointed to a recent two-year update report on DeJoy’s 10-year plan, in which the agency said “one of our greatest achievements” was “stabilizing our workforce.” At the end of fiscal 2022, USPS had seen a 3% dip in its total workforce from a year prior. It cut 13% of its non-career employees, but its career workforce saw no net increase.
“In the ten years prior to the DFA’s launch, the Postal Service experienced incredibly high rates of turnover of our pre-career employees which negatively impacted performance and increased operational costs,” the Postal Service said. The subsequent conversions and improvements to the onboarding process, USPS said, has allowed the agency to “stabilize service during the transformation.”
For Miriam Bell, a postal employee for 23 years who helped organize a rally at her facility in Charlotte, N.C., as part of a national day of protest for the American Postal Workers Union, service remains a problem. A couple dozen employees on their lunch break or not on the schedule staged the protest last week to alert management that “there is a problem with staffing, specifically in post offices themselves that serve our customers,” Bell said.
At facilities where she represents members, she explained, there is often only one clerk present and lines literally out the door. Employees are neglecting their duties behind the counter, struggling for time to put mail in P.O. boxes and cannot take their normal breaks. She felt particular sympathy for the non-career workers, who face tight restrictions on their hours and days off. Anyone who calls out sick on a Sunday without providing a doctor’s note, she said, faces a week-long suspension from the schedule.
“People are better to their dogs than they are to these employees,” Bell said.
The IG suggested the Postal Service take additional steps to limit excess work days and hours for non-career staff beyond the existing restrictions in place for their first month on the job, and to ensure supervisors actually conduct their required, regular check-ins with new employees. Postal management said it has already instituted policies to reduce the overworking of its non-career workers and will continue to do so. It also agreed to issue a memorandum to remind supervisors of their responsibilities to new workers.
Dena Briscoe, who helped lead a protest in Washington, D.C., said USPS is not replacing those who retire and expecting workers to do more with less. That is putting additional stress on supervisors, she added, who are in turn putting additional stress on front-line workers.
“It’s a domino effect,” Briscoe said. “You end up having a hostile work environment.”
Partenheimer, the USPS spokesman, said the union and protestors were ignoring all the improvements management has made to recruitment, retention, workplace safety, career training and advancement. While employees highlighted anecdotal instances of unreliable customer service, the Postal Service has stressed that, after hiccups early in DeJoy’s tenure, the agency is now delivering nearly 92% of First-Class mail on time—a figure still short of its goal of 95%.
“The position being presented here by the leadership of the APWU is absent of anything based in reality,” Partenheimer said. He acknowledged some “service-related issues in other, limited areas,” but said management is “working hard” to address them. “By developing the high-performing operation envisioned by our Delivering for America 10-year plan, we will create the safest and healthiest environment possible for our employees.”
Mark Dimondstein, APWU’s president, said the national protests were a last resort after months of complaints lodged through other channels have “fallen on deaf ears.” He acknowledged converting non-career employees to career status has helped some, but it has not addressed the underlying problem of staffing shortages.
“Upper management doesn’t have a good idea about what the problem is,” Dimondstein said. “If they are short, they are short.”
The situation has created a “vicious cycle,” he added, as new employees are overworked and mistreated, causing them to leave and creating even more shortfalls that will scare away additional workers. The protests, he said, were staged not just to sound the alarm to management but also to let the public know that the workforce is aware there are problems and is on the customers’ side. APWU is planning another day of action outside the Postal Service’s Washington headquarters for May 9, with busloads of employees from all over the country set to join the protests.
“We’re not going to sit back,” Dimondstein said.