Backroom postal employees paid to do nothing.

September 7, 2009 | By | 17 Replies More

The Federal Times has provided a disturbing example of government waste. Situations like these cause many people to distrust the federal government (except, of course, when the government is invading another country with government employee-soldiers).

Image by Xurble at Flickr (creative commons)

Image by Xurble at Flickr (creative commons)

The U.S. Postal Service, struggling with a massive deficit caused by plummeting mail volume, spends more than a million dollars each week to pay thousands of employees to sit in empty rooms and do nothing. It’s a practice called “standby time,” and it has existed for years — but postal employees say it was rarely used until this year. Now, postal officials say, the agency is averaging about 45,000 hours of standby time every week — the equivalent of having 1,125 full-time employees sitting idle, at a cost of more than $50 million per year.

According to Federal Times article, mail volume is way down (largely because of the Internet), and the USPS can’t keep all of its employees busy. This article states that union rules prohibit layoffs or re-assignment to locations that do need workers. Federal Times reported that postal officials admitted that 15,000 postal workers did least some “standby time” last year, many of them spending entire shifts in break rooms where they do crosswords and personal reading, and some even sleep through their shifts. The article notes that letter carriers are not among the affected employees; letter carriers are being kept busy due to reduced numbers of those positions and increasing numbers of addresses to service.

Speaking of mail volume being way down, my letter carrier tells me that almost everything he delivers is advertising, magazines, bills or greeting cards. People are squawking about closing some post offices, but shouldn’t there be even a bigger cost-saving move to reduce deliveries to three per week? Couldn’t I possibly wait an extra day for that magazine, for that bill or for that mailer worth 15% off on my next delivery of pizza? Think of all the fuel and money taxpayers could save if we delivered mail to residences only every other day instead of every day . . .

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Category: Economy, Internet, Noteworthy

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (17)

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  1. Erika Price says:

    The Postal Service isn't the only government bureaucracy that wastes money by cramming employees into do-nothing rooms. New York City public schools have been using the "rubber room" as a holding pen for questionable teachers for quite some time. In a This American Life piece on the rubber room, some teachers claimed they have been holed up doing nothing for years. See this NY Times piece for details.

    The unfortunate reality is that public institutions tend to have a very hard time letting people go, it seems. The government simply can't- or doesn't try to- get away with the kind of cold-hearted, cost-cutting rationality of private industries. You can bet all those poor mail carriers and instructors would have been kicked to the curb long ago- making the slowness of the government a positive and a negative, I suppose.

    I think cutting back on mail delivery days is a clear instance where money can be saved and the market can pick up the slack. Most mail can wait a few extra days before it is delivered or received. Those who need to put a rush on things can pay extra to do so, by paying UPS or Fedex. There is no reason that average mail-users should have to pay extra in shipping so that large companies can send first-class mail every day.

  2. Erich Vieth says:

    Erika: When I worked as a musician in the 1970's I was required to join the local musician's union. I was told by other musicians that there were rules that required minimum numbers of musicians to play various venues. For example, at a certain concert hall, the union rules required hiring 15 musicians, even if the band only needed 9 musicians. Therefore, 6 musicians sat throughout the performance drawing full pay, doing absolutely nothing, while the other 9 musicians performed. I don't know if that practice is still going on.

    The rubber room article is eye-opener, well written and disturbing. I've repeatedly heard from good teachers (mostly former teachers, because they burn out) how hard it is to fire terrible public school teachers. Quite often the union is a huge problem in that it is focused solely on protecting jobs and getting benefits to teachers. Too bad there is no empowered students union that would demand high quality teachers. In the case of public schools, the real victims of dysfunctional unions and government include both the children and the taxpayers and it is a terrible and frustrating story.

  3. Niklaus Pfirsig says:

    It's not entirely the fault of the unions. Most govt agencies and depts have strict regulations concerning hiring and firing practices, and these rules and regs are routinely abused by managers in the office politics and head games.

    In the rubber room cases there were probably many teachers who were good at their job, but were sent to reassignment centers because some manager did not like their national origin, or handicap, or religion. Since the manager can't fire someone without good reason, this is one way of getting someone to quit.

  4. Erich Vieth says:

    I posted this information regarding the post office because it illustrates an issue raised by many conservatives (and more quietly considered by many progressives): Is the federal government really capable of efficiently running a vast health care system?

    Certainly, this post office example has nothing to do with health care. On the other hand, examples like this drive much of the concern voiced by many conservatives.

  5. Erika Price says:

    There are certain systemic drawbacks to government-run institutions, many of them monetary and organizational in nature. Yet only extreme fiscal conservatives take such examples as reasons that we should abolish the post office or public schools, or Medicare or the military.

    Barring total anarchocapitalism, even fiscal conservatives feel on some level that things other than money matter, and sometimes a tradeoff is worthwhile- otherwise public schools and roads are a worthless waste of tax revenue. And barring communism, most liberals agree that reckless government spending can be a terrible thing. The difference between most reasonable people on the left and right is one of degree, not of kind. Both sides think a line must be drawn somewhere between social goals and fiscal restraint- they merely disagree where this line should go. Too bad the dialogue is dominated by the two extreme strawman versions of either side.

  6. Niklaus Pfirsig says:

    Well, while everyone wants to see such inefficiencies in the government, the truth is that such events are considerably worse in large corporations where wastefulness is not subjected to public scrutiny.

    The concept of standby time is no different from "on call" status in the private sector except private companies pay 5 to 10 times as much to the employees on standby.

    I can think of numerous examples in both private and public sectors where employees are kept on standby. But it is only portrayed as a problem when some libertarian or anti government ultra conservative with a self serving political agenda distorts the truth.

    Consider a profession where highly trained people are under an exclusive four year contract to provide mission critical services literally on a moments notice. Most of the time, people in this profession are slacking, and often waste time acting like tourists, driving around, seeing the sights, taking photos, playing games, flying remote control airplanes.

    Now, thousands of these professionals are employed directly by the federal government, but there are also thousands employed by private companies at much higher pay, and these private companies work under federal government contracts that are much more expensive than the government operated equivalent. The best known example of a private contractor in this business goes by the name "Xe".

    almost every profession has slack time, and employees in these professions spend large amounts of time basically goofing off while getting paid. This includes policemen, firemen, radio pundits, news reporters, lawyers on retainer, sales clerks, taxi drivers, waiters and waitresses, short order cooks, emergency surgeons, etc. It is simply the nature of service industries.

    To put the post office story in a proper perspective, calculate the percentage of standby hours to the total paid hours in the postal service. You will find it to be a small percentage.

    This is an example of how privatization proponents play up inefficiencies common to all organizations when found in government operations, while ignoring the same problem in the private sector in order to "prove" how inept and inefficient government is.

    We are expected, actually trained to believe that government is incapable of doing anything efficiently while the private sector is somehow magically immune from bureaucratic ineptitude. The common argument for privatization is a vague notion that the profit motive will provide incentive for private businesses to find more cost-effective ways of providing a level of service equal to or better than government bureaucracy can provide.

    In health care, the application of profit driven services has brought us to the crisis we are now in. The profit motive has proven itself to be a disincentive to providing quality health care, and as an incentive to denying healthcare to those that need it most.

    • Erich Vieth says:

      Thanks, Niklaus. This was helpful and it did put things in better perspective for me.

      This story still disturbs me, though. In most of your examples, people are sitting around waiting to be called into work. In the Post-Office example, the work might well exist at another location, but the deal cut by the union and the post office prevent flexible reallocation of workers. Now I do understand that you shouldn't expect a worker to just transfer on over to a new location 100 miles away. Perhaps understanding the scope of this problem, to the extent that there is one, requires knowing the details better than this article presents them.

  7. Scott Meyer says:

    The Post Office does not use taxpayer money.

    The Post Office actually delivers FedEx and UPS packages to many rural American addresses that they themselves will not deliver to. It's called "The Last Mile".

    News reports have been filled with articles about the financial crisis facing the U.S. Postal Service, many of them based on false premises. The articles often imply that the problems are irreversible, and that hard-copy mail is destined to be replaced by

    electronic messages. Following is an analysis of the assertions relied upon to arrive at faulty conclusions.

    Link to the full list.
    http://www.apwu.org/news/forthepress/facts_and_fi

    In 2006, well after Americans began using the Internet and e-mail on a mass scale, mail volume reached the historic level of 213 billion pieces. Mail sent from one household to another comprises less than 3

    percent of mail volume, so the use of e-mail and the Internet by individuals has had only a minor effect on total volume.

    The mail mix is dominated by business mail, which increases and decreases based on the strength of the economy. The recent decline of 30 billion pieces is overwhelmingly in this category. As the

    nation experienced a severe recession, most businesses reduced their advertising budgets. Television, newspapers, and radio revenues also are down signifi cantly. The Postal Service’s competitors, UPS and FedEx, have experienced severe losses as well.

    Advertising mail does not directly compete with the Internet and e-mail. In fact, mail complements other forms of advertising, and increases the effectiveness of commercial messages on the Internet and in e-mail. Mail volume fl uctuates with the economy; as the nation and the world emerge from economic stagnation, hard-copy mail volume will expand.

  8. Niklaus Pfirsig says:

    Erich, it is still a negative spin. Consider this:

    there are aver 42,000 post offices in the united states. Assuming each office employees and average of 4 clerks, who load and unload trucks and sort mail

    (actually some offices have 1 clerk and processing centers may have over 100)

    4 x 42000 = 168,000 clerks (not including carriers, who may also double as clerks in some locations )

    Each of these clerks get 2 15 minute paid breaks during their shift that the spend in a break area doing nothing. That works out to 84,000 paid hours per day where the employees are not working. multiply that by 5.5 (the number of days) most offices are open each week) and you see that the post office is paying for 462000 hours per week when no work is being done. assuming a 40 hour work week, this is the equivalent of paying 11,550 full time employees.

    My father worked for many years in the post office. smaller offices like the one he worked at, had a postmaster, who was well paid but also worked as a clerk, one full time clerk. The postmaster and clerk took turns working the counter and the backroom sorting, and during peak times (around noon and at mail drop-off deadlines of 10 AM and 3 pm ) both clerks would be very busy. However, on most days, between 1:30 and 2:30 the sorting would be caught up, the front counter would no be busy, and the full time clerk would have nothing to do until the truck came in to for the out of town pickup. That was standby time.

    If you do the math, that averages out to less than the two paid 15 minute breaks. I haven't read the Federal Weekly article, but does it mention that over the last 2 years, the USPS has been consolidating some of the smaller, less profitable offices into the larger ones and laying off extra clerks? And that they have been outsourcing much of the mail processing to private contractors? Or that they use vetted temps as clerks during the high volume seasons around Christmas, Easter and tax time?

  9. Scott Meyer says:

    A couple additions. There is work in the Post Office. They just aren't allowing us to do it. By showing less hours are needed to process the mail, it can justify more cuts. We've had more retirements in the last 6-8 months than we've had for several years combined.

    They are allowed to "excess", move people to offices where they supposedly need more people. They excessed clerks earlier this year. They were in the process of excessing 40 more clerks from my average sized mail processing facility when they put it on hold until October 9th. The reason the union negotiated this deal until 10/09 was because the P.O. is now offering a $15,000 incentive to those that retire early or just voluntarily separate themselves. It is only available to the first 30,000 employees that request it. Because these employees will obviously create holes that will need to be filled or just simply lower the amount of people that were going to be impacted. Of course this will save a lot of people from having to make life altering decisions. I've been with them for 11 years and I was initially impacted.

    Management was allegedly getting bonuses for how fast they could get excessing done regardless of whether they followed the rules or not. Here's a story of a couple of ladies being sent 120 miles one way and they are commuting 7 hours a day.

    http://www.nypost.com/p/news/regional/manhattan/l

    They're lucky it was 120 miles. Dallas will be excessing from 750 to 1000 miles and Atlanta was 500 miles last I saw.

  10. Niklaus Pfirsig says:

    Scott, in addition to my father working as a carrier, my mother work a star route in the late 60's. It involved a 90 mile long rfd route in the morning, followed by another 80 mile round trip in the afternoon to carry two or three bags of mail to a small post office on a nearby mountain top.

    Since she was an independent contractor, gas, and car maintenence was paid by her, and due to the nature of the route, it could be dangerous during certain times of the year. (Spring floods at the foot of the mountain and winter ice on the mountain roads)

    Funny story… My dad was was often pivoted between a walking route and a mounted route. In those days, many of the offices had several mailsters. The mounted routes were worked in these mailsters which were someewhat underpowered. ON one route at a local elementary school there was a speed bump that the mailster would get stuck on because the little contraption didn't have enough power to pull over it when it was heavily loaded. This often resulting in getting the assistance of the office staff at the school to push the mailster over the bump.

  11. Nancy Bessandgeorge says:

    Scott Meyer is correct in that the Postal Service was designed to be self-supporting and not reliant upon taxpayer funds. However, to the extent the USPS is insolvent and seeks bailouts, it is will require taxpayer support:

    http://www.infowars.com/postal-service-asks-congr

    Even though designed to be self-supporting, the USPS is a governmental organization. To the extent citizens form opinions about the ability of the government to perform functions in a fair and cost-effective manner, they consider their interactions with the USPS in formulating their opinions.

    Honestly, the USPS is just about the flagship of governmental organizations. The law presumes the regularity of the mails. In contrast, the law presumes nothing about the regularity of the functioning of any other agency.

    Who among us has not gone to the post office and waited in line for an eternity? I've been number thirty in line. You can go there to mail a single item and wait behind one customer wanting a passport and another who embodies the underground economy in that they require fifteen USPS money orders to pay their bills. Meanwhile, you have USPS employees getting chair-sores because the agency cannot figure out how to negotiate a union contract which enables it to move its workforce up to the counter to wait on customers.

    Government agencies are dysfuctional. If you haven't breastfed, you aren't in a position to serve as a breastfeeding coach. If you've not worked inside the federal government, you have no business suggesting that it needs to be grown bigger in order to achieve "social justice" or in order to make folks happier or healthier. Government is so broken, dysfunctional an inefficent–it is a subculture that you have to be a part of to understand.

    I'm pissed about these czars. Appointing a czar means you can't fix the dysfunction. A czar isn't hope or change. A czar means you merely create an overlay not subject to Congressional approval. When you appoint a czar, you pile it higher and deeper. You don't need a czar to analyze a governmental problem. You ALREADY HAVE THE GAO AND THE INSPECTOR GENERALS. Those folks are on the ground and can tell you where to find the waste, fraud and abuse.

    Anyone who wants to know how government works–really works–should do a google search for a GAO report on a topic that interests them.

  12. Dave says:

    Well, I am probably a little more conservative than most of the other contributors here, so let me pipe in with this:

    1. I have zero need for the post office. They only bring me spam flyers and redundnat print-outs from my investments (whom I have asked several times to be "email only", but they persist in sending paper copies). Anyone else who really needs to get a hold of me, can probably afford to send it through UPS or FedEx, or the USPS as a company.

    2. Niklaus is right– there are many companies who are just as wasteful with their labour. A couple of outfits up in Detroit come to mind, along with some former fabric and shoe makers right here in River City. Here's the thing: they get corrected after a while, and it's not my money, so I don't care so much.

    3. Erich is also right– wasteful government agencies scare the crap out of me, and they should scare most citizens. As a hack developer and IT nerd, I groove on improving processes– and I have found very few efficient ones in my dealing with the Feds or with any large operation. There's a certain size of an organization, above which all efficiencies of process seem to evaporate away. This is my main concern with health care: it's not a moral resistance to the concept of caring for my fellow Americans, it's a lack of trust in Uncle Sucker to do it with any modicum of common sense or efficiency.

    If someone can explain to me how the health care plans will work, and without using any fairy-dust economics, then I am all for it. Until then, color me skeptic.

  13. Dan Klarmann says:

    I depend on daily Postal Service to run my business. No one else comes to my door every day without charge to collect outgoing packages, and provides a discount for printing my own prepaid labels, and at a cost significantly lower than UPS or FedEx, who charge extra for home pick-ups.

    I heartily endorse an incremental hike on bulk mail fees, as few people want to receive these, and they are very profitable to the senders.

    Any bureaucracy will collect parasites. It's an inevitable effect of Parkinson's Law. The USPS is not unique in this malaise.

  14. Dave says:

    Parkinson's Law! Well, I figured there was a law or rule or something out there to describe that bureaucratic sclerosis. Thanks!

  15. Reese says:

    I retired from the postal service after 33 years of government service. Although a union member, I detested their methods, for I always argued on the side of hard work, not entitlements. People coming to my office always felt I served them personally and professionally.

    Over the years, many have argued for privatization of the postal service. Think before acting. First, today it costs 44 cents to mail anywhere in America. That same letter sent via UPS/Fed-Ex would cost dollars. And some places they refuse to go, because they have fuel surcharges and other costs which would not apply if they had to deliver in uniquely remote places. So, go to UPS/Fed-Ex and pay outrageous prices. Secondly, consider this: the day the postal is privatized, UPS and Fed-Ex will merge; THEY will be the “post office”. And then watch the prices skyrocket. Since the 1770’s the price at the post office hasn’t risen too terribly much.

    Yes, there are inefficiencies at the post office. I was always disturbed by how many people wanted to know “exactly what the contract defined their job to be” so they did not have to do some things that should have been done without question. And since we Americans can change this circumstance of Post Office responsibility through a Constitutional Amendment, that is the avenue with which to proceed. Consider it carefully before acting. Until then, demand your Congressmen to get to work on fixing the inefficiencies themselves. Boycott the post office if you wish. And be prepared to open your wallet to the welcoming competitors.

  16. Niklaus Pfirsig says:

    The problem with the post office is that, while they were initially designed to work as an self funded business unit, pretty much in the same mode as many municipal utilities, a self funded, not for profit business controlled by a special government branch. This worked well until change in the pension laws put them in debt.
    The USPS also provides “last mile” delivery for many of the profitable private parcel services, especially in delivering packages to indivduals in remote areas. These last mile service act as a back dor subsidy for private carriers like DHL, ups and FedEx.

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