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Does the Postal Service Really Pay Workers to Do Nothing?

Details of Postal Service Standby Time Policy


postal worker

The U.S. Postal Service pays some workers for doing nothing when mail volume drops.

Joe Raedle / Getty Images
Updated August 31, 2011

Would you believe the U.S. Postal Service, which lost a whopping $8.5 billion in 2010, spends millions of dollars a year paying thousands of employees to do absolutely nothing?

It's the truth.

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"This is called standby time, and occurs when workers are idled but paid due to reassignments and reorganization efforts," according to the Postal Service's Office of Inspector General.

Where else could you get paid a decent salary for sitting in an empty room, doing absolutely nothing?

Cost of Standby Time

Standby time cost the Postal Service about $30.9 million in 2009, the equivalent of some 1.2 million hours. The semi-independent government agency paid out $22 million in 2010 in standby time, according to the Office of Inspector General.

Standby time represents a relatively small portion of the overall work done by the Postal Service. Still, it's about the same as having more than 1,000 workers on the clock but not having anything for them to do.

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"Although reducing standby hours remains a top management priority, it is small relative to overall work hours and does not take away from the substantial progress made in reducing work hours," the Inspector General's Office said in a 2011 report.

In 2010, for example, the 1.4 million hours of standby time represented less than 1 percent of the 1.18 billion work hours put in by Postal Service employees.

How Standby Time Works

The Postal Service cannot simply lay off employees because of declining mail volume under its contracts with the major labor unions.

So workers impacted by such slowdowns report to work, but sit around in conference rooms, break rooms and occasionally 12-foot-by-8-foot storage closets, according to a 2009 report by Federal Times. The Postal Service reportedly calls those rooms "resource rooms." Employees who resent being bored refer to them derisively as "holding pens."

See also: Postal Service Ends Bonuses for Top Executives

"The Postal Service records standby hours for career bargaining unit employees who are guaranteed work hours, as required by applicable national labor agreements, when there is insufficient work available," according to the Office of Inspector General.

"Standby time is used for unplanned impacts that effect employee complement, unplanned, low-work-volume periods on a particular day or days; or other unplanned events such as equipment breakdown."

Standby Time Policies

Nonetheless, Postal Service managers have said their hands are tied when it comes to standby time. "Volume has dropped, we don't get the same mail receipts we used to get, and our overtime is already pretty much nil," Edward Jackson, the plant manager at the mail processing facility in Washington, D.C., told Federal Times. "But we still have to keep them in a pay status. So we put them in the standby rooms."

See also: The Postal Service Debt Ceiling

Jackson told the newspaper that employees in standby are forbidden from doing anything they couldn't normally do on the job. That includes reading books, playing cards and watching the tube.

"We want to make sure they uphold the rules and regulations of the Postal Service," Jackson told the paper. "So we try to rein them in while they're in those rooms."

Standby Time Cut Dramatically

The Postal Service has cut costs dramatically in the face of escalating annual deficits and potential insolvency as its total indebtedness approaches the agency's $15 billion debt ceiling.

The Postal Service was considering the closure of as many as 3,700 facilities, the elimination of wasteful spending on travel, the end of Saturday mail and cutting delivery to just three days a week as well as getting rid of bonuses for top executives.

See also: Postal Service Losses By Year

The Office of Inspector General found that standby time has declined in recent years, from 1,249,278 hours and $30,794,715 in 2009 to 875,540 hours and $21,984,811 in costs for 2010. Those declines continued in the first part of 2011.

"Nationwide standby time has declined in the last two years due to factors including reductions in complement to align more closely with workload, planned retirements and retirement offerings," the of Office Inspector General reported in 2011.

"However, at a time when the Postal Service is challenged to operate more efficiently, monitoring stand-by time is critical to ensuring their ability to effectively manage the workforce."

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