Despite declines in mail volume and cost cutting measures, the US Postal Service paid employees $980 million in overtime during the first three months of its fiscal year, according to reports filed with the Postal Regulatory Commission. a 16.7% increase over the same period a year ago. The reports cover the period from October 1 through December 31.
During that period, the average overtime rate for bargaining unit employees increased from 7.8% the prior year, to 9.1%. The numbers suggest that the USPS isn’t overstaffed, at least in terms of its current workload, and that as employees leave the service, the USPS has had to replace them, at least to some extent, with overtime hours.
Straight time work hours provide a reasonable indicator of staffing levels. In the first quarter, the USPS saw a reduction 7.3 million straight time bargaining unit hours. During the same period, overtime hours increased by 3.1 million. That means that for every ten employees who retired, the USPS had to replace four of them with additional overtime hours.
Among city carriers, straight time work hours were down 2.2 million, but overtime hours increased by 2 million- almost a one for one replacement. The average city carrier worked 11.8% overtime over the last three months, compared with 9.8% the prior year.
The situation was different for clerks, whose workload is more sensitive to volumes and the impact of automation. Clerk straight time hours decreased by 3.8 million hours, while overtime increased by just 600,000. Even so, the average clerk worked 8.6% overtime during the period, compared with 7.5% the prior year.
The fact that the USPS is using these levels of overtime doesn’t necessarily indicate a problem. The first quarter is still a relatively high volume period. And given the fact that the service has a mostly full time workforce, very low levels of overtime would suggest that the USPS is indeed overstaffed. A reasonable level of overtime is cheaper in the long run than hiring more staff- you can increase overtime more easily than you can reduce straight time.
But the OT levels in the carrier craft suggest that if the USPS is not successful in getting Congress to agree to five day delivery, it will eventually have to start adding more letter carriers. Even if mail volume doesn’t turn around as quickly as expected, delivery points will continue to increase, adding to the carrier workload. Eventually carrier OT will increase to a levels that won’t be sustainable given the increase in costs and decrease in efficiency.