The American Interest
Analysis by Walter Russell Mead & Staff
Hard Times In The Post Office Break Room

Want to get paid to do nothing? Go work for the US Postal Service. According to a new report and subsequent story in the Washington Post, in the first six months of 2011, the USPS paid $4.3 million in compensation to workers on “standby time” – work hours where, due to low mail volume, employees show up to work but just sit in the break room. In 2009, $30.9 million was paid in “standby” salary.

As if that wasn’t enough, audits have shown that employees took advantage of poor oversight to report overly high “standby” hours.

This ludicrous waste is the result of longstanding agreements with two postal service unions. With a severe decline in traditional snail mail, postal workers have less to do. But the power of the unions keeps them employed, and paid, at great cost to the government.

In spite of the unions, cuts are coming to the USPS: the Service wants to cut as many as 20 percent of employees and withdraw from federal health plans in order to save money.

It’s hard to decide who to be angrier at.  Management should have resisted counterproductive demands like this even at the cost of a strike.  And union leaders should have come up with something more creative and useful to ask for.  The USPS has been clearly heading for the elephants’ graveyard ever since those newfangled email and internet things caught on.  Workers didn’t need temporary featherbedding; they needed to work with the Postal Service to try to make it relevant in the new world and they also needed education and training opportunities to prepare many workers for the inevitable layoffs.  More of that, less nonsense like no-work work, and both labor and management would be much better off.

Thousands more postal workers will be losing their jobs.  With smarter union leadership fewer of them would be leaving — and those who did would be better prepared.

Published on August 29, 2011 3:58 pm
  • http://www.michaeltotten.com Michael J. Totten

    Maybe those employees should step out of the break room and help with the ridiculously long line I have to stand in every time I need to mail something that doesn’t fit in an envelope. The post office is less pleasant to visit than even the DMV. I thought it was because it’s understaffed, but apparently not.

  • Jacksonian Libertarian

    Anti-Trust the Labor Gang Monopolies, break them up, and make them compete with each other for work. It’s the feedback of competition that makes the free enterprise system so productive, and it’s the lack of that feedback that makes monopolies such a failure.

  • Jordan

    The Post Office, along with the DMV, are perhaps the two most common government agencies most people interact with, and by and large we dread interacting with these agencies.

    The issues surrounding the Post Office highlight something even more amazing. The printing press is widely considered the most important development over the past 1000 years or so. And just in the span of the past ~15 years, the printing press has largely been made irrelevant.

    There are (sadly) a large number of people who have simply been left behind. The Post Office is just one example. But on a larger scale, millions of workers in (public or private) offices have been working as they were since the 80′s. And in these tough times, many of them have been let go, only find their skills are 20+ years out of date. (In this regard, I somewhat disagree with a recent WRM post — while public offices have that “old and stodgey” feel to them, many private offices have the same feel). I have spoken to a number of 55+ yr olds who seem just in an utter daze that the world changed under them so quickly.

  • Jim.

    Well, the maintenance of post roads and post riders, for use by critical government messages, was the original rationale for the service. What’s the modern equivalent?

    Well, making sure UPS and FedEx have serviceable roads is a good start. But to put the highway system under the Post Office? Weird.

    The modern equivalent of free-flowing information in government service could be the Internet, but the congestion can actually cause a scale-free network to collapse. So shouldn’t the newfangled Post Office (what do hairstyles have to do with this, anyway?) be charged with setting up an Internet backbone for the government to use, that was immune to Denial of Service type attacks, even during emergencies?

    We already have protected Satcom, but with the cancellation of TSAT the bandwidth just isn’t that great. Hm. That’s an idea, resurrect TSAT under the aegis of the new Post Office, expand the constellation, and structure it for unclassified government traffic as well? Interesting.

  • Mrs. Davis

    The Post Office is the ultimate Blue State sinecure. It must be defended. WigWam? Bueller? Crickets.