Increased package volumes, a presidential election and workforce illness made the COVID-19 pandemic a logistical challenge for the U.S. Postal Service, exacerbated by problems tracking employees’ sick and administrative leave during that time, an inspector found.

“During the COVID-19 pandemic, the Postal Service faced unforeseen and uncontrollable challenges, including higher package volumes and employee absenteeism,” a June 16 agency inspector general report said.

“The Postal Service’s primary focus on granting leave during the COVID-19 pandemic was to protect its employees’ health and safety. Therefore, COVID-19 pandemic challenges prevented Postal Service facility managers from consistently following the procedures in place regarding the authorization of employees using COVID-19-related leave. Additionally, early in the pandemic, many facility managers were confused on the correct leave type to grant employees, as guidance changed frequently.”

According to that report, forms required for USPS employees to take paid time off, as well as additional documentation for emergency and sick leave, were not always filed or completed.

“We found 185 of 192 (96 percent) randomly sampled employees were either missing documentation or documentation was not properly completed,” the report said.

“The 185 employees accounted for over $900,000 in unsupported COVID-19 leave costs. COVID-19 pandemic challenges prevented Postal Service facility managers from consistently following the procedures regarding the authorization of employees using COVID-19-related leave. By not having appropriate supporting documentation to substantiate that employees were on authorized leave, we estimated the Postal Service’s unsupported COVID-19 leave costs nationwide totaled $12.4 million.”

Part of the problem stemmed from paper processes for filing for leave — namely that the Request for Notification of Absence requires physical signatures of both the employee and the manager. That meant that employees who unexpectedly could not come into work struggled with documentation.

Employees also on occasion went over the limit of 80 hours of emergency paid sick leave and 12 weeks of expanded family and medical leave established by the Families First Coronavirus Response Act.

“There were nearly 12,000 instances of employees who exceeded COVID‑19-related leave limits. Specifically, the Postal Service identified and made over 8,300 payroll adjustments for employees who exceeded COVID‑19‑related leave limits. We found nearly 3,600 additional employees who still needed payroll adjustments because they exceeded leave limits.”

And though the report validated that USPS “took quick, decisive action focused on employee safety,” it also revealed how widespread the impacts of COVID-19 were on the USPS workforce, with over a third of employees taking pandemic-related leave.

The challenges created by such large segments of the workforce being unable to work, coupled with controversial management decisions surrounding truck schedules and mail sorting machines, led to significant scrutiny and criticism of the agency.

Congress is in the process of attempting to enact reforms that would free up budgetary resources for the agency and expand leave options for employees.

The report recommended that USPS digitize its leave forms — which is slated to be completed by September 2023 — reiterate the importance of policy and leave documents to supervisors, modify payroll systems to more accurately record rural administrative leave, and reiterate leave policies and limits for employees.

The agency agreed with IG recommendations.

Jessie Bur covers federal IT and management.

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