The U.S. Postal Service regularly cheats mail carriers out of their pay, a Center for Public Integrity investigation has found.
Managers at hundreds of post offices around the country have illegally underpaid hourly workers for years, arbitrators and federal investigators have found.
From 2010 to 2019, at least 250 managers in 60 post offices were caught changing mail carriers’ time cards to show them working fewer hours, resulting in unpaid wages, according to arbitration award summaries obtained by the news organization involving claims filed by one of the three major postal unions.
Supervisors found to have cheated rarely were disciplined. Often, those who were got off with a warning or more training.
Since 2005, the Postal Service has been cited by the federal government 1,150 times for underpaying letter carriers and other employees, including one case involving 164 violations, according to Labor Department records.
The federal agency determined that those workers lost about $659,000 in pay.
Yet it allowed the Postal Service to pay back not even half of that after negotiations with the agency.
These cases don’t include arbitration cases filed by other postal unions or wage-theft grievances settled before reaching arbitration.
Cases keep cropping up as the Postal Service struggles to pay off $188 billion in debt and unfunded liabilities, which piled up largely because federal law requires it to prepay retiree healthcare and pension benefits.
Mail carriers say supervisors face intense pressure to keep overtime costs down. At the same time, pandemic-fueled spikes in online ordering are overwhelming mail carriers with packages.
Postal Service spokesman David Partenheimer said the agency doesn’t condone supervisors making unsupported timecard adjustments.
“This position is messaged to the postal workforce directly from postal leaders . . . who periodically reissues policies regarding appropriate timecard administration for supervisors,” Partenheimer said, declining to discuss specific cases.
Every morning, mail carriers across the United States swipe their badges at their post office to clock in. They swipe their badge a few more times when they begin and end their delivery route and other tasks and again at day’s end.
All of this is supposed to happen within an eight-hour shift for most carriers. That’s because the Postal Service doesn’t want to pay overtime, which is 50% extra per hour under federal law.
The agency’s inspector general has repeatedly admonished the post office for spending billions in overtime each year and urged managers to cut back.
It’s not uncommon for managers to go into the payroll system and make changes to show carriers ending shifts earlier or taking unpaid lunch breaks, according to private arbitration decisions maintained by the National Association of Letter Carriers, a labor union with nearly 290,000 members — about 45% of the agency’s workforce.
In most cases, managers didn’t submit the required paperwork to explain the changes or notify the employee. Other times, supervisors just told carriers to clock out after eight hours and then work without pay.
“Heinous,” an arbitrator in Nashville wrote in 2018 when presented with evidence that a manager deleted carriers’ work hours. “It’s an act, in my view, on the same level as theft.”
In Boston, arbitrator Katherine Morgan called the pattern of wage theft “systemic” and “egregious.” In a 2019 decision, Morgan called timecard changes federal offenses “which cannot be treated lightly and which could lead to fines and even imprisonment.”
The Postal Service has long been one of the largest employers of African Americans in the United States. During the civil rights era, it was a place where Black workers could advance without as many barriers as the private sector, said Frederick Gooding, an African American studies professor at Texas Christian University.
The post office “was, in many ways, a beacon of hope and opportunity,” said Gooding, author of “American Dream Deferred: Black Federal Workers in Washington, D.C., 1941-1981.”
Black workers make up 12% of the overall U.S. workforce but 19% of the Postal Service’s mail carriers, 38% of its clerks and 31% of its mail handlers. Asians also represent a larger-than-average share of the postal workforce.
The Postal Service often will acknowledge unlawful timecard changes and agree to pay back workers. A union advocate then asks an arbitrator to sanction the supervisors involved. But the arbitrators say they can’t do so, ordering supervisors to take training instead.
In Chicago, a union representative begged an arbitrator to take action after supervisors deleted employee work hours at all 11 offices in the city. Internal mediators already had ordered those supervisors repeatedly to stop, but they wouldn’t.
Ruling last December, the arbitrator said she didn’t have the authority to mandate monetary penalties, instead telling post office leaders to tell supervisors to stop.
The Center for Public Integrity is a nonprofit investigative news organization.