The best listening experience is on Chrome, Firefox or Safari. Subscribe to Federal Drive’s daily audio interviews on Apple Podcasts or PodcastOne.
It’s bad enough when employees don’t show up for work. For the Post, it is a perpetual problem. Managers can plan and budget for vacations, even the unexpected like sick days. But what about absences without leave or AWOL? This turns out to be a thorny management challenge. For some management lessons learned, the Federal Drive with Tom…
It’s bad enough when employees don’t show up for work. For the Post, it is a perpetual problem. Managers can plan and budget for vacations, even the unexpected like sick days. But what about absences without leave or AWOL? It turns out to be a thorny management challenge. For some management lessons learned, the Federal Drive with Tom Temin turned to Postal Service Deputy Assistant Inspector General Jason Yovich.
Tom Temin: Mr. Yovich, nice to have you.
Jason Youvitch: Hello Tom. Thank you for.
Tom Temin: And you’ve looked at the AWOL problem, and it turns out that it might be a little bit smaller than what the Postal Service managers are reporting. But it’s still a problem. And let’s talk about what you found in terms of their ability to categorize people who aren’t there for the right reason and therefore manage better.
Jason Youvitch: Well, first, our objective in the audit was to assess how the Postal Service manages employees and AWOL status to identify opportunities to address employees in AWOL status in a timely manner and manage costs. And for context, AWOL employees, it’s an unpaid status that results from a determination that no type of leave, you know, including leave without pay, etc., can be granted, either because the employee did not obtain prior authorization or requested leave which was denied. Thus, these AWOL absences can serve as the basis for disciplinary action. And to achieve our goal, we mined and analyzed national employee leave data, including AWOL from October 2017 through September 2020. And we visited 24 Postal Service locations. In each of the zones, we selected a postal service district with a high number of hours of absence per person and another district with a low number of hours of absence per person. It was a question of obtaining a good representation of the two situations.
Tom Temin: Looks like you had a pretty good database then because it’s a long time and a lot of people.
Jason Youvitch: We wanted to get a representation of the pre-COVID environment and also the environment the Postal Service faced during the pandemic. So yeah, three years, we felt that was a good representation.
Tom Temin: Okay, and what were your main conclusions here, then?
Jason Youvitch: So let me first say that we fully understand and acknowledge the challenges the Postal Service has faced during the pandemic and applaud them for their efforts, especially during this time. That said, we have identified two areas for improvement to deal with inactive employees in a timely manner and better manage costs. So, first, there are opportunities for Postal Service facility managers and supervisors to improve their management of AWOL employees. So, specifically, they weren’t always recording absence hours correctly, they were using different tips on how to execute progressive discipline for employees. And they weren’t always collecting or keeping employee vouchers in AWOL. So that’s the first problem. And the second problem was that management did not always include all AWOL employees’ disciplinary and benefits documents in their personnel files. About 90% of employees in the extended absence sample did not have all disciplinary or health benefits documentation on file. So it was a bit difficult for us when checking it out. So while the Postal Service had specific criteria detailing which disciplinary and health benefit documents to keep, management kept some of the paper documentation and then some of it was electronic, so it was a bit of a mixed bag there. And Postal Service personnel did not always monitor or verify that all appropriate AWOL employee disciplinary and health benefits documents were indeed uploaded to this folder. And management did not incorporate a timeline for these administrative actions for approximately 37% of employees in the sample after taking disciplinary action. Thus, the postal service had no specific policy on the details of the administrative actions to be documented.
Tom Temin: We speak with Jason Yovich. He’s a deputy assistant inspector general in the United States Postal Service, and what’s the scope in terms of hours of work or payroll, etc.? What does all of this cost the Postal Service each year?
Jason Youvitch: The effect on the operations of the postal services is therefore a very good point and the core of our audit as well. So three main aspects. So first, as I said earlier, whenever employees are incapacitated, their job responsibilities still need to be fulfilled. Thus, AWOL employees can affect a facility’s overtime and employee morale and create additional work for other employees who are not absent and working. And that could lead to increased overtime for the Postal Service and other health and safety issues. Second, by not improving the management of AWOL employees, the Postal Service risks making procedural errors and wasting resources when attempting to prepare and issue discipline letters to correct employee behavior. We estimated that the Postal Service pays nearly $3.8 million annually in health benefit premiums for employees who remain on extended absence status, which means more than 60 calendar days. And finally, when employee administrative actions and health benefit records are not properly maintained, future disciplinary action and health benefit enrollment and termination may be delayed, which also hinders postal service. Thus, when management does not document the administrative actions of employees, they may not be able to provide support when those administrative actions are actually issued.
Tom Temin: Did he hit the Inspector General’s office? Did it strike you that there are too many people just walking away, because that’s when I think of AWOL, I think of something very different from saying someone in a situation of disability, or someone who may have contracted COVID disease and calls and says, you know, I’m going to be away for a few weeks, that would be, I guess, an excuse not to be at work.
Jason Youvitch: That’s a good point. And that’s been a problem for the Postal Service over the years and the nature of its business, but there’s also been an increase during the COVID pandemic. So, the issue of AWOL has probably always been an issue for the Postal Service, but it is imperative that they manage these employees into AWOL status proactively.
Tom Temin: Right. So that means you have to document everything in a uniform way. And I wanted to get to this idea of the lack of uniformity and how things are handled and how people are communicated across institutions. Aren’t there national policies for that?
Jason Youvitch: There are overarching policies, but what we found was that there were inconsistent policies at the district and facility level as to how this was actually implemented. One of our recommendations, therefore, is to review and ensure that the disciplinary guidelines are truly consistent for the Postal Service. And that’s a challenge because of the nature of their business and their dealings with labor relations and unions and so on. That there is a case-by-case aspect to disciplinary action. However, our audit highlighted the need for more consistent disciplinary guidance for its managers and supervisors.
Tom Temin: That was my next question, is the way the Postal Service treats AWOLs, is it part of the bargaining agreements they have with the various unions?
Jason Youvitch: No. And that was outside the scope of the audit to look at how the Postal Service negotiated with unions. This was outside the scope of this audit.
Tom Temin: OK, and any other recommendations you think are important here?
Jason Youvitch: Absolutely. We made a series of recommendations to strengthen the management of AWOL employees and promote operational efficiency and manage costs for the Postal Service. And that included policy clarification on how to properly register AWOL employees. As I have said before, reviewing and ensuring that disciplinary guidelines are consistent, providing training to managers and supervisors to manage employees in AWOL status, emphasizing the importance for managers to complete and timely review and maintain documentation of AWOL employee attendance, discipline, and health benefits. Verify that all appropriate AWOL employee health and disciplinary documents are reviewed. Finally, ensure that the guidelines on the internal websites of all managers and supervisors are up-to-date and updated regularly, as appropriate, and ensure that appropriate documentation is included in employee personnel files.
Tom Temin: I imagine if employees know that this is being carefully tracked and that benefits would be properly removed exactly when they can, it might even help reduce some of the AWOL problem.
Jason Youvitch: That’s a good point. This would definitely be a contributing factor in improving communication with employees, knowing that managers and supervisors are on top of it all.
Tom Temin: Jason Yovich is a Deputy Assistant Inspector General for the United States Postal Service. Thank you very much for joining me.
Jason Youvitch: Thanks Tom. Thank you for.