USPS has shorted some workers’ pay for years, CPI finds

Nancy Campos' back hurt as she loaded over 100 Amazon packages onto her truck. The grandmother of 59, who is a U.S. mail carrier, was elated to see her package. The grandmother, 59, was working 13 consecutive days without a break and now she was delivering boxes on Martin Luther King Jr. holiday.
Campos completed her timesheet at the end of her January shift. Campos took a photo of the time sheet to prove it.

Campos, a Midland, Texas mail carrier, stated that he knew exactly what was coming because it happens every pay period.

She discovered that she had missed six hours of overtime pay two weeks later when she checked her payroll system. This added up to $201 in lost wages for a week's worth of groceries.

All postal workers in the country share her frustration.


The Center for Public Integrity, a non-profit news organization based in Washington D.C., provided this story to The Associated Press.


According to a Center for Public Integrity investigation, the Postal Service routinely cheats mail carriers of their wages. Arbitrators and federal investigators found that hundreds of hourly employees at post offices across the country were illegally paid less than they should have for years.

Part of the story is told by private arbitration records. According to Public Integrity, at least 250 mail carrier managers were caught using time cards to show that they worked fewer hours between 2010 and 2019. This led to unpaid wages.

Cheating supervisors were not often disciplined, receiving a warning or additional training. Arbitration documents reveal that post office managers altered time cards in four cities despite promising union leaders that they would cease.

According to data from the Labor Department obtained via Freedom of Information Act request, 1,150 times since 2005, the Postal Service was cited by federal authorities for underpaying letter carriers. According to the agency, these workers had lost approximately $659,000 in wages. After negotiations with the agency, the Postal Service was able to pay less than half of the amount. This is a standard practice at the Labor Department. About 19% of these cases didn't indicate whether the Postal Service had paid employees back.

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These findings indicate widespread wage theft at this iconic quasi-governmental institution. They only provide a partial picture of the problem. These do not include arbitration cases that were filed by other postal unions, or wage theft grievances that were settled before they reached arbitration.

As the Postal Service struggles with $188 billion of debt and unfunded liabilities, new cases keep popping up. This is largely due to federal law that requires it prepay pension and retiree benefits. Since 2007, the agency has lost nearly 142,000 employees. In March 2020, the Postal Service needed a $10 million emergency loan from Congress in order to pay its bills.

Mail carriers claim that their supervisors are under intense pressure to reduce overtime costs. Moreover, mail carriers are being overwhelmed by online orders due to pandemic-driven spikes in internet ordering. They can't expect to get paid for their hard work.

David Partenheimer (Postal Service spokesperson) stated that the agency doesn't condone supervisors making timecard adjustments without supporting documentation and that it takes such allegations seriously.

This message is sent to the postal workforce directly by postal leaders, including the Vice-President, Delivery Operations who periodically reissues policies concerning appropriate timecard administration for supervisors. Partenheimer wrote an email to Public Integrity. Partenheimer declined to comment on particular cases.

Campos claimed that the agency still owes her thousands for two wage theft grievances she settled before she discovered the overtime pay missing in January. She claimed her boss promised her a refund for the holiday, but he never paid her.

It was all I needed. Campos said enough is enough. She shared with Public Integrity copies of her pay stubs and timesheets. That money is our only hope. It is the worst feeling to be shorted.

Systemic problems

Campos and thousands other mail carriers in the United States swipe badges at local post offices every morning to clock in for work. They sort mail, check for undelivered items, and load their trucks. Once they finish their day, they swipe their badge once more.

For most carriers, all of this should happen in an eight-hour work day. The reason is that the Postal Service does not want to pay overtime. Federal law allows for 50% more per hour. The inspector general has repeatedly warned the Postal Service about its excessive overtime spending each year, and has asked managers to reduce their expenses.

Mail carriers claim it is impossible to go back in time. The Postal Service is known for being short of staff at a time that carriers are delivering record numbers of packages. They delivered nearly a third of all packages to Amazon in 2019, delivering 1.5 billion items.

This means that carriers work extra hours. Managers may also be able to delete certain records from the system. Public Integrity's review of private arbitration decisions kept by the National Association of Letter Carriers (a labor union that has nearly 290,000. Members, or 45% of the agencys workforce) shows that some of their changes may show carriers taking a lunch break or ending their shifts earlier.

Most of these cases involved managers who failed to submit required paperwork or notify affected employees. Sometimes, supervisors simply told employees to clock out after eight hours of work and continue working without pay.

According to a 2019 ruling by an independent arbitrator, this happened frequently to Maverick Tran, and his San Jose colleagues.

Tran said to the arbitrator, who acts as a judge in this kind of legal dispute, that his supervisors frequently told him to manually clock-out at 6 p.m. when he was running behind while delivering mail.

He said that although I have not yet unloaded my truck nor emptied out any items, I would be freed by the clock during a closed-door hearing at San Jose's main post office.

One coworker claimed that managers regularly clock out their employees before they return to the station. Another carrier claimed that they told him to punch out before the end his shift in order to avoid overtime.

Rafael Zambrano–Lay, one of those coworkers, stated that he was so afraid about returning to the post office after 6 p.m., that he would forego meals and rest breaks to run while delivering mail to customers' homes.

Zambrano­Lay didn't respond to a request to comment, and Tran declined the offer to discuss the matter.

The arbitrator was informed by the union representative that almost all of San Jose's 12 post office supervisors had improperly manipulated employee hour for at least three consecutive years. The union discovered that the unauthorized changes cost mail carriers anywhere from $52,000 to $90,000.

A representative of the Postal Service did not explain to arbitration panel why time cards were changed by managers. He stated that the behavior was not common.

Nancy Hutt was the arbitrator. Hutt was alarmed after reviewing the time cards of 240 San Jose mail carriers. She wrote that the data shows a widespread practice of management by willfully and repeatedly deleting and altering Time Records of Letter Carriers.

Other arbitrators were also shocked when they read the allegations.

Heinous, a Nashville arbitrator, stated in 2018 that evidence had been presented to him that a manager had deleted the work hours of carriers. I consider it theft-like.

Arbitrator Katherine Morgan in Boston called the pattern for wage theft systemic. She also warned that it could result in fines or even imprisonment.

Arbitrators determined that at least nine states' postal managers had illegally altered the time cards of mail carriers in recent years. This resulted in more than 900 mail carriers being cheated out of their pay. They ordered the Postal Service not to falsify time cards and to pay cheating employees.

Jennifer Williams, a former Atlanta mail carrier, stated that it is hard to believe. This is a government job. No one should have to wonder if they will get paid when they go to work.

Williams, 36, claimed that her coworkers had warned her to keep track her hours when she was first hired as a mail carrier in Feb 2020. Williams claimed she didn't receive her first paycheck, and that she had to file a grievance to the union in order to be paid. Williams claimed that she had missed five hours of overtime when her second paycheck arrived. According to the lawsuit Williams filed against the Postal Service in federal courts, another supervisor informed Williams that her boss had deleted the hours.

She said that her boss reprimanded her for raising the overtime issue with her boss over the phone. Williams claimed that the mail truck she was driving had broken down, and that she was fired because she didn't complete her route. In September 2020, Williams filed a lawsuit claiming that she was fired illegally for complaining about wage theft.

Williams said that she was upset as she relied on the post office to make ends meet. She also said that she had to accept a low-paying job in a filter factory because she was fired.

Partenheimer declined to comment on the lawsuit. However, court records show that lawyers for the agency have denied that Williams' overtime hours were deleted by a supervisor or that Williams was fired because she complained about missing pay. The case was settled by both parties in June. Williams received $2,356 in damages, and $3,143 in attorney fees.

Williams stated that she misses working at the post office. Williams once saw the agency in the same way that thousands of Black Americans before her: as a steady job with decent benefits and decent pay.

The Postal Service is one of the most important employers of African Americans in America for many years. Frederick Gooding, a Texas Christian University professor of African American Studies, stated that the Postal Service was a place where Black workers could progress their careers without the same barriers as the private sector during civil rights.

Gooding, author of American Dream Deferred, Black Federal Workers in Washington D.C. 1941-1981, stated that the (Postal Service), was in many ways a beacon for hope and opportunity.

Black workers remain overrepresented in the Postal Service to this day. They make up 12% of the U.S. workforce but 19% of agency's mail carriers, 38% its clerks, and 31% its mail handlers. A larger percentage of the postal workforce is also made up by Asians than average.

These workers might be disproportionately affected by wage theft, but it is not clear. Arbitration documents and Labor Department records don't track every employee's race or ethnicity. The repeated theft of paychecks proves that the Postal Service can be a desirable place for employees.

Campos, a Texas mail carrier, stated that he would not have expected such a response from the post office. This was once an honorable job.

Campos has been a carrier for three year and says she has filed three grievances against her bosses regarding unpaid work. She said that they have now settled her complaints and that management has agreed to pay her an undisclosed amount. This includes the extra time she spent delivering a long route, which is often more difficult than it should, and she also received the overtime she worked.

She said that several of her coworkers are waiting for their pay for similar reasons. However, she believes that no one will be punished because they ripped them off.

In the San Jose case, the arbitrator ordered the Postal Service's employees to be paid what they owed. A few months later, Tran, Zambrano-Lay, and other carriers sued Postal Service in federal court. They are seeking cash damages and back pay. The Postal Service had already paid $570,000 to employees involved in the case as of February. Both attorneys reported to the court.

Accountability is rare

In February 2019, around two dozen employees met at a San Antonio postal office for a heated meeting. Ruben Vela was the station manager. He said that they were being threatened by union outsiders.

Witnesses said that Vela reacted to Steven Ramirez, the union steward, and blasted him in front everyone at the meeting.

Ramirez discovered Vela and at most one other supervisor had regularly deleted 25 hours of work over a two-year period, according to an arbitration decision made later in the year. The arbitrator determined that in some cases, Vela and at least one other supervisor had forged the initials of employees to approve the changes.

Later, employees who attended the 2019 meeting stated that Vela had described the time card change as a simple error.

Vela was not reachable by Public Integrity for comment.

Kirk Fraser, one the mail carriers present at the meeting, stated that he was distraught, according to the arbitration agreement. He called it an immoral and grave breach of trust.

According to the decision, clearly falsifying (USPS) forms is not an error but something that was deliberate. Some of his coworkers and he said that they did not understand why Vela was not fired.

In arbitration, however, the Postal Service stated that Vela was temporarily prohibited from accessing time cards until he can retake training about how to manage time card changes. The arbitrator was informed by the agency that they had reimbursed the employees.

The light rebuke angered union representatives Richard Gould, Adam Reyna. They requested the arbitrator to direct the Postal Service not to supervise Vela's letter carriers.

If this type of theft was committed by a mail carrier, it would have been grounds for immediate removal. However, the Postal Service seems to have decided that its supervisors should be held to a lower standard then the craft workers they manage, according to union representatives.

The representative of the Postal Service argued that harsher punishments would negatively impact his career as a supervisor and deprive him of due process.

Similar scenes have been seen in several closed-door hearings throughout the country. The Postal Service will accept the illegal time card changes and pay workers back. An advocate for unions then asks an arbitrator if he can sanction the supervisors. Arbitrators state that they cannot sanction supervisors under the contract and order them to receive training.

It doesn't always make a big difference. After supervisors had been found to be deleting employees' work hours in all 11 Chicago offices, a union representative pleaded with an arbitrator. Although internal mediators had previously ordered the supervisors to cease multiple times, they refused.

According to the December 2020 decision, cease and desist orders were not effective in persuading Chicago Management to enforce the prohibition on stealing time. She said that she did not have the authority to impose monetary penalties and required that post office leaders meet with their supervisors to tell them to stop. The arbitrator also instructed the Postal Service that periodic card reviews be allowed.

Fredric Rolando, president of the National Association of Letter Carriers, declined to comment on individual cases and said the union addresses time card fraud through the grievance-arbitration system and in the courts.

In the meantime, we are monitoring these situations to ensure USPS adheres to arbitration decisions and grievance resolutions, he stated in a statement to Public Integrity.

Rolando wrote in a September 2019 newsletter that one of the greatest problems facing the Postal Service was a toxic workplace culture, which tolerates abuse and wage/time steal.

One North Carolina rural mail carrier compared the Postal Service with a bank robber.

The post office seems to be above the law, stated the employee. He asked not to be identified for fear of reprisal from his supervisors. They can do whatever they like.

The Postal Service is aware of the problem

Many supervisors of the Postal Service have been caught cheating employees, and they are all well-aware. Over the years, time records have been audited at many post offices by the agency's inspector general.

The inspector general's office confirmed in a 2009 letter to Paul Hodes that there were complaints that three New Hampshire post office supervisors were changing time cards and underpaying employees by almost $30,000. The inspector general's office confirmed complaints that New Hampshire supervisors were changing time cards and underpaying employees by nearly $30,000. A year later, more than 160 suspicious changes were discovered during an audit of three New Hampshire post offices. 75 percent of these changes weren't properly documented. Auditors stated that the Postal Service didn't have sufficient systems in place for supervisors to ensure employees are not being underpaid.

The lead auditor stated that we couldn't determine the exact reasons why supervisors changed attendance and time records.

The agency watchdog suggested that the Postal Service train all supervisors regularly, create an additional layer of approval for every card change, and conduct periodic audits.

Dean Granholm, the then head of delivery and operations for the Postal Services, agreed to follow these recommendations.

The wage theft did not stop. The inspector general alerted the postal leaders in 2018 that over 100 supervisors in Boston had altered time records. This resulted in the deletion of hundreds of hours by 814 postal workers over a two-year period. Auditors examined 199 of these changes and concluded that most of them were not properly documented.

Granholm has resigned from the agency and did no respond to a request for comment.

Finally, the inspector general examined the issue at a national level. Auditors found that more than 46,000 hours had been lost by managers across the country over a six-month period. The investigation then found that 86% of timecard changes made by employees were without proper documentation.

Similar to previous audits, the inspector general recommended that supervisors talk about time card rules and create a process for periodic review of such changes. It was accepted by the Postal Service.

Public Integrity spoke with mail carriers who believed that supervisors continue to dock their hours as managers depend on overtime spending. The same claims were made in legal records by union stewards as well as lawyers. The Postal Service refused to say whether overtime spending is linked to pay raises.

Mail carriers claim that wage theft will not stop unless the Postal Service penalizes those responsible.

Some carriers also take photos of their time sheets and keep track of their hours in a notebook. To assist with this, one union developed a mobile application.

Campos is refusing to quit her job despite all the hardships.

I have invested so much. She said that she didn't want to go. I'm 59 years old. I am 59 years old.


Alexia Fernndez Campbell, senior reporter at Center for Public Integrity is a non-profit investigative news agency in Washington, D.C.