A mailbox sticks out of water during neighborhood flooding after Tropical Storm Cindy, now downgraded to Tropical Depression Cindy, in Big Lake, La., Thursday, June 22, 2017. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

Investigation “Will Likely Find” USPS Activity Violated Hatch Act

Media Trackers has learned that the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs will hold a hearing Wednesday on leaves granted to postal workers to engage in campaign activity during the 2016 election. A letter to a witness from committee chairman, Senator Ron Johnson (R)-Wisconsin, and ranking Member Claire McCaskill, (D)-Missouri, obtained by Media Trackers, says: “We understand that the Office of Special Counsel will likely find that some of USPS’s practices related to granting LWOP (Leave Without Pay) for union activities constituted an institutional violation of the Hatch Act.”

Media Trackers first reported on a USPS Office of Inspector General audit of the practices on Tuesday.

The audit concluded that U.S. Postal Service policy was circumvented when Postal Service employees around the country, including Wisconsin, were granted leave without pay (LWOP) to engage in union campaign activities for Democrats in Fall, 2016. Media Trackers exclusively reported about the existence of the investigation in December.

In late November 2016, Johnson asked the U.S. Postal Service Office of Inspector General (UPSOIG) review a constituent’s allegation that a select group of postal carriers took LWOP from the Wisconsin Rapids and Marshfield post offices to participate in union political activities. The constituent told Media Trackers in December that the approved leaves created serious strains on staffing and questioned whether the overtime costs accrued may have violated the Hatch Act.

The UPSOIG Office of Investigations, in conjunction with the Office of Special Counsel, conducted a separate investigation of potential Hatch Act violations. The Hatch Act is a federal law that restricts the political activity of federal and Postal Service employees while on duty, on government property, wearing an official uniform, or using a government vehicle. It also prohibits candidates campaigning for election to public office on leased or owned postal property.

The UPSOIG audit found that:

In 2016, the National Association of Letter Carriers (NALC) worked with the American Federation of Labor – Congress of Industrial Organizations as part of the Labor 2016 Campaign (campaign), which focused on “get out the vote efforts.” As part of the campaign, NALC requested, and the Postal Service granted, LWOP from September to November 2016 for 97 carriers assigned to 92 facilities nationwide. The NALC identified six battleground states as priority: Florida, Nevada, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin.  The audit says that, in the past, the Postal Service has allowed its employees to participate in this NALC campaign effort. But the audit also found that policies regarding the granting of LWOP were circumvented in 2016, which led to understaffed offices accruing thousands of hours in overtime pay. From the audit:

From September through November 2016, the Postal Service granted LWOP to the 97 carriers for periods ranging from four to 50 days to participate in political activities on behalf of the union. The total cumulative amount of LWOP taken by these carriers was about 2,776 days during this period. These carriers were located in 92 facilities nationwide. Seventy eight percent of the facilities (72 of 92) were located in six political battleground states where NALC endorsed specific candidates. Additionally, about 2,264 of the 2,776 cumulative days (82 percent) of the total LWOP for these carriers were used in these six states.

The audit found that local and regional managers with staffing concerns often were overruled by superiors and ordered to grant the LWOP:

Several factors contributed to supervisors approving LWOP requests even though operational concerns were raised. The headquarters Labor Relations manager of policies and programs circumvented the LWOP policy by issuing emails to all area Labor Relations managers communicating the release of 97 carriers to participate in this union political activity. The emails also requested immediate notification if there were any issues with granting the LWOP. Postmasters, managers, and supervisors perceived the communication as a requirement to approve the LWOP requests.

Additionally, headquarters Labor Relations officials did not communicate or coordinate requests for carriers to participate in the union activity with senior Operations personnel, including the chief operating officer or area vice presidents. Also, the Chief Human Resources Officer and Vice President, Labor Relations, were aware of the releases, but did not communicate the requests to senior Operations personnel since these requests had been accommodated in the past.

Further, NALC officials provided carriers with emails and texts announcing their selection to participate in the political activity. The carriers used this information as support to request LWOP. Postmasters, managers, and supervisors at the facilities reviewed perceived the communications they received from Postal Service management and union officials as a requirement to approve the LWOP requests.

The Postal Service has historically allowed its employees to participate in union political campaigns and has an organizational culture of supporting relationships with the union, which impacted some supervisor’s decision to approve LWOP. While on LWOP, these carriers were paid by NALC, which was subsequently reimbursed by its Letter Carrier Political Fund, in accordance with federal Election Commission regulations.

Based on our review of LWOP requests for the 22 carriers, we determined that supervisors and postmasters felt compelled to release carriers and grant LWOP despite Postal Service policy to consider not only the needs of the employee, but operational impact. These supervisors initially denied the LWOP requests, five due to staffing shortages and two due to a lack of information. The supervisors verbally denied the requests and expressed their concerns by telephone or email to their district Labor Relations managers,2 manager of Post Office Operations (MPOO),3 or manager of Operations Programs Support.4 Despite supervisors’ concerns, their decisions were subsequently overruled by these managers and the supervisors were instructed to approve the leave.

More from the audit:

On September 2 and October 2, 2016, the headquarters Labor Relations manager of policies and programs circumvented the policy by issuing emails to all area Labor Relations managers communicating the release of 97 carriers to participate in the campaign. The emails also requested immediate notification if there were any issues with granting LWOP. In some cases, these messages appeared to influence the decisions of local labor relations and operational managers as they provided guidance to front-line supervisors. For example:

■ Pacific Area: The officer-in-charge (OIC) at the Highland Post Office in CA initially denied a carrier’s LWOP request due to staffing shortages and increased overtime. The OIC contacted the San Diego District Labor Relations manager for guidance. The manager instructed the OIC to release the carrier.

■ Eastern Area: In the Philadelphia Metropolitan District, three postmasters, with the support of the MPOO, attempted to deny the release of three carriers by informing the Eastern Area Labor Relations specialist via email of staffing issues. The specialist then notified the headquarters Labor Relations manager of these concerns; however, the headquarters Labor Relations manager instructed the area Labor Relations specialist to encourage the district to facilitate the requests.

■ Great Lakes Area: Although supervisors in Delafield, Waukesha, Marshfield, and Wisconsin Rapids, WI, initially wanted to deny the requests to release the carriers, the MPOO encouraged them to release the carriers.

■ Western Area: A supervisor at Vista Station in Sparks, NV, approved a carrier’s LWOP request because they were instructed by a district Labor Relations specialist to release the carrier based on past practices. Area and district Labor Relations managers we interviewed perceived communications from headquarters as a requirement.

The audit concluded that the Postal Service incurred net overtime costs of $90,682 to cover for carriers who took LWOP to engage in the union’s political activities. It is possible that the increased overtime costs are the focus of the investigation into possible Hatch Act Violations.

It should be noted that, in rebuttal, postal service management challenged some of the findings of the audit.

The Postal Service disagreed with two of the report’s conclusions. First, management does not believe there is any factual basis that a headquarters Labor Relations manager “circumvented” the Postal Service’s LWOP policy by directly communicating the union’s request to operations managers in the field.

Secondly, management disagreed with the conclusion that the Postal Service incurred net overtime costs of $90,682 to cover union members who took LWOP to engage in the union’s political activities, since they find it to be unsubstantiated and, therefore, potentially inaccurate and misleading.

The audit states that the UPSOIG stands behind its findings.

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Jerry Bader

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