Letter carriers and other postal employees have been saying for several years that changes at the Postal Service would lead to more job-related industries. A new report suggests they may be right.
“Despite the Postal Service’s efforts to decrease the number of employees [by 19% since 2008], its workers’ compensation costs have increased 35 percent,” the U.S. Postal Service Office of Inspector General noted in a report last week.
The OIG pointed out that USPS’s workers compensation costs per work hour are now 59% higher than those of comparable private-industry workforces. But it offered no data that would help explain the dramatic increases, which led to $1.3 billion in workers compensation claims from July 2012 to June 2013.
The report speculated as to the causes, but most of its guesses seem off the mark: Older workforce? (Nope, it’s not much older on average than it was in 2008.) Cost-of-living adjustments? (Average hourly pay at the Postal Service is up only 7% since 2008.) Workers compensation fraud? (You mean that didn’t exist in 2008?)
The OIG put forth one plausible explanation – “the reduced number of light/limited duty positions available because of automation and lower mail volume.” But it didn’t consider several other possibilities, most of which have been put forward by front-line employees:
- Increased street time: Delivery-point sequencing of letters – and, for some areas, flat mail – have meant carriers spend less time in the office sorting mail and more time delivering. That’s likely to lead to repetitive-strain injuries, especially on walking routes, for carriers who are delivering to more addresses than ever.
- Longer hours: The proportion of overtime hours is up 80% for mailhandlers and 30% for letter carriers so far this fiscal year versus the same period in FY2008. That may also lead to more repetitive-strain injuries.
- Night-time deliveries: Reports of carriers working their routes after dark, especially during the winter in northern parts of the country, have grown dramatically in the past couple of years. That seems to be a combination of longer routes and of mail arriving at the delivery units later than in the past. In any case, having carriers negotiating icy sidewalks at night is a prescription for more slips, falls, and fractures.
- More uninsured employees: USPS has reduced its costs the past few years partly by replacing retirees with lower-paid, often younger non-career employees. Such employees are more likely to report a pinched nerve or sore knee as a work-related injury, since many have little or no health insurance.
- More parcels: Letter volume is declining, but postal employees are handling and delivering more packages than ever — often using delivery vehicles not suited to the purpose. The higher proportion of heavy and oversized mail pieces may be causing more injuries.
The Postal Service can’t address the troubling workers compensation trend without understanding the causes. And the way to get at the causes is not with speculation but with actual data – for example, trends in injuries by occupation, age, and type.
To be fair, the OIG report does offer viable ways for USPS to manage its workers compensation costs better and for overhauling the relevant laws. It notes that the agency is paying workers compensation to two “active” employees who are more than 100 years old – certainly a sign that something is amiss.