Non-career employees at the U.S. Postal Service are significantly more likely to get injured on the job and leave their positions than employees with a permanent status, according to a Sept. 16 Government Accountability Office report.

Employees without permanent status at USPS receive lower pay and fewer benefits than their career counterparts, often under the assumption that they will have a path to a career position in the future. But according to GAO, those non-career employees, of which there are more than 200,000 across the U.S., had 50 percent higher rates of injury than career positions and reported the incidents to the Federal Employees’ Compensation Program 43 percent more often.

“Representatives of postal unions and management associations, as well as USPS, told us that these higher injury rates, at least in part, can be attributed to the fact that non-career employees are often new. Specifically, officials from four of the six postal employee groups we interviewed noted that newer employees — who are almost all non-career — have less experience on the job, which can lead to injuries,” the report said.

“We conducted regression analyses to control for a variety of factors that may affect injury rates, including tenure, age, health insurance, occupation type, overtime work, night work, and postal facility. We found that status as a non-career employee was associated with a 22 percent higher rate of reported injuries and a 16 percent higher rate of FECA [Federal Employees’ Compensation Act] injuries when we controlled for those factors. As a result, it is likely that features of the non-career position contribute to higher injury rates among non-career employees.”

Non-career employees are more likely to work odd hours, such as night work, where the chance for injury is greater, the report found. Such employees are also more likely to be assigned to work unfamiliar routes or jobs, and are more often pressured by managers to perform work that is less safe or to do so in a shorter amount of time, the report added.

“Officials from another union stated that managerial pressure may come in the form of unrealistic expectations — telling a non-career employee that a task should take 4 hours instead of 6 hours — either intentionally to accelerate work speed or because the manager does not account for an employee’s relative lack of experience. Non-career employees may be particularly susceptible to such pressure because they want to keep their job,” the report said.

USPS has increased the percent of non-career employees in its ranks over the past decade as part of an effort to make the agency more cost-effective and flexible, a decision that agency officials say has saved USPS billions of dollars. The agency has for many years been unable to meet its financial mandates.

But according to the GAO report, the average cost per employee for injury compensation is consistently higher for nonpermanent workers than for permanent ones.

Part of the problem is that USPS does not track injuries relative to career or non-career status, giving the agency less insight into how to combat the issue.

“USPS now hires most employees in the four main occupation types into non-career positions. As USPS has increased the number of non-career employees in the four main occupation types, the organization has also reduced the number of employees hired directly into career positions. Instead, most non-career employees are hired on renewable contracts that offer a pathway to career position, in which employees have greater schedule certainty and receive higher compensation,” the report said.

“However, the timing of converting from a non-career to a career position may vary widely. For example, a small percentage of employees are hired into career positions, others may convert after a few months if a vacancy arises, others may be guaranteed conversions after 2 years from collective-bargaining agreements, while others may wait years to be converted.”

That uncertain conversion timeline, combined with lower pay, unpredictable hours and less guaranteed income, means non-career USPS employees leave at a far greater rate than career employees: 28.6 percent turnover per year compared to 1.7 percent, respectively.

“Between fiscal years 2016 and 2020, USPS spent an estimated average of about $120.9 million annually on new-hire costs associated with non-career turnover, based on our analysis of USPS data,” the report said. “While USPS would be in a much worse financial situation if it had not used more non-career employees in recent years, preventing injuries — aside from the obvious benefit to employees — is also good business. In particular, by analyzing injury data by career status, USPS could help mitigate some of the costs and operational challenges associated with injuries among non-career employees.”

GAO recommended the agency analyze injuries based on employment status, and USPS agreed with the recommendation.

Jessie Bur covers federal IT and management.

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