The U.S. Postal Service, expecting about $9 billion in losses this year amid slumping mail volume, is still paying thousands of its workers millions of dollars each year to do nothing.
But it's paying far less for "standby time" than it did two years ago, according to a report.
Long-standing labor agreements with the largest postal unions prohibit the Postal Service from laying off or reassigning workers because of broken equipment or periods of low mail volume. Instead, some idled employees report for work and are instructed to sit in a break room or cafeteria and do nothing.
Standby time totaled 170,666 hours in the first six months of 2011, costing the Postal Service $4.3 million, according to an audit by the Postal Service inspector general's office.
The hours are a mere fraction of the hundreds of millions of hours worked by postal employees each year, according to postal union officials.
And standby time is down considerably this year from 2009, when workers billed 1.2 million such hours at a cost of $30.9 million, according to the report.
"At a time when the Postal Service is challenged to operate more efficiently, monitoring standby time is critical to ensuring their ability to effectively manage the workforce," the report said.
Members of the American Postal Workers Union and the National Association of Letter Carriers are eligible for standby time payments, but the option was rarely used until 2009, when mail volume began to plummet and the Postal Service started to consolidate processing plants in the Northeast and Midwest, according to the report.
Audits of operations in Dallas and Detroit found that many workers incorrectly billed the Postal Service amid lax oversight of such payments.
In response, the Postal Service said it would require new monthly tracking and monitoring of standby payments by the end of September. But at least some standby payments are expected to continue even as the Postal Service is set to announce next month at least $7 billion in losses.
The American Postal Workers Union and the Postal Service struck a five-year deal this spring; negotiations with the National Association of Letter Carriers on a new multi-year deal began this month.
Postal Workers union spokeswoman Sally Davidow said her union does not know how many of its members use standby time because the Postal Service does not share payroll data. Provisions for standby time are not in the union's five-year agreement, she said.
The Letter Carriers union said none of its members bill the Postal Service for standby time. But Jim Sauber, the union's chief of staff, said idle time is inevitable.
"This is a network industry, and workers sometimes have to wait for trucks that are stuck in traffic to arrive with deliveries," he said. "Worker productivity is at a historic high, as are on-time deliveries, as well as residential and business customer satisfaction."
As negotiations with the Letter Carriers began, postal officials announced they are seeking permission from Congress to cut 120,000 jobs by circumventing labor contracts. Postal and federal union leaders fear that the move could eventually compel lawmakers to get involved in other federal labor-management deals.