This story was published in partnership with Univision.
A 43-year-old mailman in rural Texas is dreading the next two weeks. Not because it’s the busiest time of year for the U.S. Postal Service, but because he worries he won’t get paid for all the extra hours he will be working.
He’s been clocking about 12 hours of overtime each week since the start of the pandemic in early 2020 and says his paycheck has been short at least half a dozen times. One, from last year’s holiday season, incorrectly showed him working zero hours, he said.
Other postal workers say they feel just as anxious about getting cheated during the holidays: A mail carrier in Chicago nearing retirement; a mother of three teenagers in upstate New York; a Minnesota father who rarely makes it home in time for dinner.
Roughly two dozen mail carriers in 10 states told the Center for Public Integrity that they plan to work overtime in the weeks leading up to Christmas, and half say they’ve struggled to get paid for all the hours they worked in recent months. Some blame their supervisors for deleting hours worked from their timecards to avoid paying overtime, which is 50% extra under federal law.
In some cases, carriers say the Postal Service owes them money because it hasn’t updated the time it takes to deliver mail on all rural routes since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, which caused a sharp spike in online shopping and a deluge of packages to deliver. Most rural carriers are paid by how many hours it usually takes to deliver their routes, not how long it actually takes. They can also earn overtime by picking up extra routes on their time off.
Hundreds of managers have been caught illegally changing mail carriers’ timecards to show them working fewer hours than they did, shorting their paychecks, according to a Public Integrity investigation published in August. The news organization obtained a batch of private arbitration award summaries stretching over the last decade. Supervisors were rarely punished for cheating employees.
“It’s really tough to stay at a place that has such little respect for its people and where you have to fight to get paid for the work you do,” said the Texas mail carrier, who, like other Postal Service employees interviewed for this story, asked Public Integrity to withhold his name out of fear of retaliation from his supervisors.
A spokesperson for the Postal Service, Darlene Casey, said the agency does not condone improper timecard changes and takes such allegations seriously.
“This position is messaged to the postal workforce directly from postal leaders, including the Vice President, Delivery Operations, who periodically reissues policies regarding appropriate timecard administration for supervisors,” Casey wrote in a statement to Public Integrity. “Additionally, the Postal Service continues to enhance its time and attendance technologies and processes to provide greater oversight of timekeeping practices and increase employee insight into their own work hours.”
Yet some managers continue to change employee time cards, even after arbitrators have ordered them to stop, according to dozens of mail carriers and private arbitration documents recently shared with Public Integrity. In San Jose, California, for example, an arbitrator admonished Postal Service managers earlier this year for ignoring her order to stop cheating mail carriers on pay, calling their behavior “deliberate and devious.”
Private arbitration records and personal anecdotes reveal only part of the problem. They don’t include wage theft grievances settled between the agency and the postal unions before reaching arbitration. And they miss all the times that wage theft goes unreported, either because employees are afraid to complain or because they don’t understand the agency’s complex pay rules.
“People are worked so hard that they don’t have time to rest or eat, let alone check if their timecard or paycheck is accurate,” wrote a mail carrier in Minnesota, who has filed more than two dozen grievances with her local labor union since the start of the pandemic.
In her case, she said, the agency wasn’t paying the cost of living raise she was due, per the union contract. She said she finally got paid back eight months after filing the first complaint. Like many other mail carriers who reached out to Public Integrity, she said she assumes that the Postal Service will short her during the peak holiday rush.
Arbitrator to Postal Service: ‘Compliance is not optional’
In February, arbitrator Nancy Hutt grew exasperated with the Postal Service after two days of closed-door hearings at a post office in San Jose. A union steward had brought 11 binders with copies of employee time sheets, showing that post office supervisors in Silicon Valley were still changing mail carriers’ timecards to cheat them out of pay.
About a year-and-a-half earlier, in September 2019, Hutt reviewed evidence that supervisors in all 12 San Jose post offices improperly manipulated employee hours for at least three years and underpaid staff by hundreds of thousands of dollars.
In a legally binding arbitration award, Hutt ordered Postal Service supervisors to pay back mail carriers and stop changing time cards without their approval. She also ordered all involved managers to get retrained on how to properly use the timekeeping system.
But the time theft didn’t stop, according to a second arbitration decision she issued in April, which was obtained recently by Public Integrity.
Jeff Frazee, a union arbitration advocate with the National Association of Letter Carriers, told her he found 4,510 timecard violations in the months following her original decision, according to a summary of Hutt’s findings. Frazee’s binders showed that managers continued to clock out employees while they were delivering mail or change time sheets to show them finishing work before they did. In one case, a manager made it look like an employee took unpaid leave on a day the employee worked a full shift.
On top of that, a union representative said in the arbitration hearing that the Postal Service couldn’t provide proof that it retrained managers to use the timekeeping system. And mail carriers in seven San Jose post offices accused supervisors of pressuring them to sign paperwork approving years-old timecard changes, despite some of their objections.
A representative for the Post Office told the arbitrator that the agency had complied with the previous arbitration decision and that all the money owed to carriers had been paid by Jan. 8, 2021 – adding up to $571,520.
After two days of testimony, Hutt determined that the Postal Service largely ignored her orders. She described the continued timecard fraud as “intentional, repetitive and egregious.”
“Compliance is not optional,” she wrote in her April decision. “Management has no option to pick and choose.”
Hutt once again ordered supervisors to stop the illegal behavior and to pay back employees. It’s unclear whether the Postal Service has done so.
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Casey, the USPS spokesperson, declined to answer questions about the San Jose case.
Ernie Arrañaga, president of the local San Jose mail carriers’ union, did not respond to a request for comment.
Maverick Tran, a former mail carrier who worked in San Jose for seven years, said a Postal Service leader apologized to staff during a stand-up meeting before Tran quit in July.
“She said something like ‘sorry about falsifying clock rings’ and that it shouldn’t happen and that they’re doing their best to keep it from happening again,” Tran recalled, referring to the start and finish entries in the timekeeping system. “But they’ve always been saying that. It didn’t sound sincere.”
Tran said his former bosses often clocked him out before he finished working, and he quit in July because he didn’t want to spend another Christmas season delivering mail late into the night and missing out on family gatherings. He said he’s in touch with some of his former co-workers, who tell him that managers are still changing timecards, just not at the same scale as before. He hopes this holiday season isn’t so rough for them.
“Honestly, I don’t know what’s going to happen,” said Tran, who now works the assembly line in a medical device factory. “It’s probably going to be hectic.”
The looming holiday test
Last holiday season was certainly hectic. The number of packages mailed through the Postal Service jumped 37% from the previous year’s peak as the pandemic pushed Americans to do their Christmas shopping online. The Postal Service was already understaffed, with high employee turnover, and mail carriers took more sick days than usual as the pandemic spread. Packages piled up at mail processing centers across the country, delaying delivery up to 17 days.
The Postal Service said it’s prepared this time and plans to hire about 40,000 temporary employees through the end of the year — a 33% increase from last year.
The inspector general for the Postal Service — which serves as an independent agency watchdog — suggested that might be hard to pull off.
“While the Postal Service was able to hire its planned number of temporary employees last peak season, it fell short the prior two years,” according to an audit report released in November.
The audit did not mention concerns from current employees about getting paid for the extra hours they’re logging.
“I feel management will make any and all excuses to avoid paying any overtime,” one rural mail carrier in Florida who has worked at the agency for 17 years wrote in response to a survey Public Integrity shared with USPS mail carriers.
A long-time mail carrier in Chicago, who has been working 10 to 20 hours of overtime each week during the pandemic, said the wage theft is still happening.
“They will steal from craft employees by changing their clock rings and finding any number of excuses to say that the overtime wasn’t needed and shouldn’t have been paid,” he wrote in response to the survey.
The mail carrier in Texas, meanwhile, said he expects to get stiffed in the coming weeks. “It’s just a matter of when,” he said.
Last holiday season, he had to take out a $4,000 loan to pay his mortgage and other bills, he said, because one paycheck erroneously showed him working zero hours. He was eventually repaid but said the Postal Service did not reimburse him for the interest he paid on the loan.
Getting paid back is a process that usually takes four to five months after filing a complaint with the postal union, he said. That doesn’t count the time it takes to fill out the paperwork for each grievance.
“Who’s going to pay me for those hours?” he asked. “Nobody.”
He gets his last paycheck of the year on Christmas Eve.
Public Integrity’s Ashley Clarke and Alex Eichenstein contributed to this report.
Alexia Fernández Campbell is a senior reporter at Public Integrity. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at @AlexiaCampbell.
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