As its workforce shrinks, the U.S. Postal Service's reliance on employee overtime is surging.
Last year, the mail carrier spent some $3.3 billion on overtime pay, up more than one-third from $2.4 billion in 2009, according to figures provided by the Postal Service's inspector general. During the same period, the number of career postal workers dropped about 10 percent from 623,000 to 557,000.
In the long run, it's cheaper to increase overtime while overall work hours are going down, USPS spokeswoman Sue Brennan said in an email. With salary, benefits and pension costs, a newly hired career postal worker carries a 60-year price tag of $6 million, she said, so the temporary use of overtime "carries a clear cost advantage."
But a large amount of that overtime is unauthorized, a new inspector general's report indicates.
In 2011, postal employees logged some 10.6 million hours of unauthorized overtime, up by more than 40 percent over 2010. That work cost $423 million for the Postal Service, which lost $5.1 billion in 2011. The IG visited 12 mail processing plants and post offices between July and March; nine had unauthorized overtime ranging from 15 to 98 percent of total overtime hours.
Lax controls over timecards at some facilities contributed to the problem, the IG said in the report released late last month.
"These conditions created opportunities for employees to receive overtime without prior approval, clock-in for work before their scheduled tour began, and clock-out after their tour ended," the report said.
One processing plant employee, for example, said he sometimes worked on his scheduled day off without checking to see whether he was cleared to work overtime. Another employee said she normally kept working after her shift ended to finish up her assignment. The two assumed those practices were acceptable "because their supervisors never addressed the issue with them," according to the report.
Furthermore, several supervisors told the inspector general that their workloads had risen significantly in recent years. As a result, updating time and attendance records "was not a priority," the report said.
Just because the overtime was unauthorized didn't mean it was unneeded, Brennan said. In most cases, "the supervisor was aware that the employee was continuing to perform productive work," she said, but simply failed to make the required paperwork entry. For the Postal Service as a whole, productivity was up 2.5 percent from 2009 to last year, she said.
In a written response to the new audit, USPS chief operating officer Megan Brennan said the organization will strengthen training for supervisors. The Postal Service will also develop ways to hold supervisors and managers accountable for failing to address unauthorized overtime.
The audit is the latest in a series to fault the Postal Service's timekeeping practices. In 2010, USPS officials did not plan effectively for the combined effects of a declining workforce and other factors, the inspector general concluded, leading the agency to overshoot its overtime-hours target by almost 68 percent. In a 2009 audit, the IG found that the Postal Service failed to ensure that supervisors' time off was accurately recorded.