“The wheels of justice turn slowly, but grind exceedingly fine,” a proverb goes.
By that standard, it should come as no surprise that the U.S. Postal Service now has until Oct. 9 to respond to allegations in a $180 million lawsuit filed by contractor Northrop Grumman over the handling of a major automation project.
The suit was filed in early May, with the Postal Service’s response originally due two months later. But Federal Court Claims Judge George Miller later pushed back the deadline until Sept. 3 and—in a ruling this month—delayed it again to Oct. 9 following a motion from USPS attorneys that they still need more time.
While those lawyers are conferring with Postal Service employees and reviewing documents, “scheduling issues and the limited availability of relevant USPS personnel have delayed progress toward filing a response,” Miller wrote in an order summarizing the mail carrier’s rationale for a second postponement. According to the Postal Service, Northrop Grumman did not object.
The U.S. Postal Service’s inspector general is out with a new overview of employee retirement options. This is a hot topic nowadays, given that USPS leaders have been open about their interest in using early-out incentives as a glide path to a much smaller agency.
One finding: More than 189,000 postal employees (that’s well above one-third of the current career workforce) are eligible to retire in fiscal 2012. That number appears to be a good bit higher than the figure used by postal execs, who generally put the ratio at around one in four. The report also notes that the Postal Service already has the authority to offer early retirements in fiscal 2012, and “may request an extension to” 2013.
The IG also makes no recommendations on how USPS leaders should proceed, but does offer a handy summary of annuity formulas, the mechanics of early retirement options, etc. Definitely worth a look.
The focus of a congressional hearing last week was on the U.S. Postal Service’s desire to create its own employee health insurance plan. But Postmaster General Pat Donahoe also had something intriguing to say about the possibility of some kind of employee buyout program. Asked by one lawmaker whether he had any plans or suggestions to “incentivize” retirement for workers who are eligible to leave, Donahoe said this (according to a transcript):
“We do plan on issuing some incentives based on the fact that we make some changes in our operations. As we shrink the network, as we move from six- to five-day delivery, we would put some incentive money to move people along. It’s critical for us to move the headcount down. But at the same time, we’ve got a lot of non-career people on the that are less expensive to work with but they’re also younger people. And if we — if we had to take them off of workforce, they would end up unemployed and I don’t want to do that.”
By asserting that the mail carrier plans to proceed with incentives, Donahoe appeared to go beyond previous statements by USPS officials. At the same time, he seemed to tie incentives to the Postal Service’s getting a green light to eliminate Saturday mail delivery and take other controversial economy moves. Asked later for clarification, USPS spokesman Mark Saunders said “we’re in discussions with our union and management associations on the incentive issue and have nothing to announce at this time.”
And lest anyone need a reminder, congressional resistance to much of the Postal Service’s downsizing agenda remains fierce. In a bipartisan letter to House leaders released yesterday, for example, more than 100 lawmakers voiced opposition to five-day delivery and closing rural post offices.
“We recognize the need for USPS to restructure its business model,” they wrote, “but believe that we must not be rushed into false choices which could accelerate the decline of the Postal Service, with negative impacts both for our constituents and the trillion-dollar private sector mailing industry which depends on the Postal Service.”
The Senate took a surprise first vote on postal legislation today. The result: Lawmakers probably won’t be trying again before mid-April.
The bill is the 21st Century Postal Reform Act (S.1789); the vote, which came this afternoon, was on a procedural “cloture” motion to see if supporters could muster the 60 votes needed to move forward with debate. As it turned out, they couldn’t. The motion picked up only 51 votes, with most Democrats voting in favor and most Republicans opposed.
The Senate hadn’t been expected to take up the bi-partisan bill until tomorrow at the earliest. Why lawmakers proceeded today was the subject of two schools of thought. By one reading, Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Ct., and the measure’s co-sponsors wanted to gauge the level of support as they keep negotiating with other lawmakers on crucial details. By another, majority Democrats simply wanted to get off debate on a separate measure to repeal oil and gas industry tax breaks because it was giving Republicans an opportunity to highlight high prices at the pump. Whatever the motive, the postal bill’s backers may have some work to do.
In a statement afterwards, Sen. Tom Carper, a Delaware Democrat and co-sponsor, said he looked forward to the Senate considering the legislation after lawmakers return from an Easter/Passover break the week of April 16.
“I don’t think this vote accurately reflects senators’ feelings on the legislation, though,” Carper said. “In fact, it’s clear that the bill enjoys support from senators on both sides of the aisle who recognize that we must act quickly if we hope to save this American institution.”
If signed into law, the bill would let the U.S. Postal Service tap surplus pension fund contributions to offer buyouts and early retirement incentives to up to 100,000 USPS employes. Here’s a link to an official synopsis that lists the measure’s other highlights.
The great Senate debate on postal overhaul legislation ain’t happening—definitely not today and possibly not until mid-April, after lawmakers return from a two-week spring break. Instead, the Senate is poised to lock horns for a while on a bill to repeal oil and gas industry tax breaks.
That’s not what many folks were expecting. In fact, dickering on the postal measure sponsored by Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Ct., was reportedly continuing as late as this morning. The plan was this: Late this afternoon, the Senate would first take a procedural vote on whether to debate the oil and gas tax repeal legislation. That motion would fail in the face of Republican opposition and lawmakers would move on to the postal bill.
But Republicans—deciding that they would love the chance to talk about energy when gas is around $4-a-gallon—voted in favor of going ahead with the oil and gas legislation. For now, that means the Lieberman postal bill likely won’t come up until Wednesday at the earliest, a spokeswoman said. And with senators set to leave for the two-week “state work period” for Easter and Passover that kicks off next Monday, it could well be the week of April 16 before they get to it.
For readers in need of a reminder on what the Lieberman bill would do, here’s a link to an official synopsis. (And don’t forget, FedLine noted last week that everything in the Senate is subject to change.)
For those keeping track of the three-ring show known as U.S. Postal Service labor negotiations, the National Postal Mail Handlers Union reports that a federally appointed mediator is now in place to help the two sides settle on a new contract. The mediation process can take 60 days; if it fails, the next step will likely be binding arbitration.
An impasse was declared in late January in the Postal Service’s contract talks with both the mail handlers union and the National Association of Letter Carriers. The NALC announced the appointment of a mediator last month. “We’re working hard,” President Fredric Rolando said in a statement today. “We’re committed to reaching an agreement through the mediation process.”
But the National Rural Letter Carriers’ Association is already in arbitration. In an update posted earlier this month on its web site, the NRLCA reported that both sides had concluded their introductory cases before a three-member arbitration panel. As a matter of policy, USPS officials don’t publicly discuss labor negotiations. By the NRLCA’s telling, however, the Postal Service attempted to persuade the panel that its financial condition “requires dramatic actions to curb or reduce wages, COLA allowances, paid leave, health and other benefits that rural letter carriers and this union have worked hard to achieve.”
The American Postal Workers Union has returned to national television with three new 30-second commercials. But unlike a softer-focus ad campaign that ran last summer, these spots have a definite target: the U.S. Postal Service’s downsizing agenda and, in particular, its plans to close or consolidate more than 220 mail processing plants.
If a Maine plant closes, “we would have to consider layoffs” because of increased mailing times, says the president of a Bangor company that produces billing statements, appointment reminders and other documents, in one ad. The other commercials suggest that the processing plant closures could slow delivery of mail-order prescription drugs and warn that the Postal Service wants to lop 100,000 jobs from its payroll overall.
“They’re going to be putting people out of work everywhere,” says Walt Gale, a retired USPS manager from Colorado. “The American people depend on the Postal Service.”
The ads, which began airing last week on NBC, CNN, Fox News Channel and MSNBC, are set to run through May. APWU spokeswoman Sally Davidow declined to give a dollar figure for the total buy, but in an email described it as “a significant amount.”
The timing is no accident. Late last month, the Postal Service released the list of processing plants targeted for demise by next year; meanwhile, the Senate could soon take up legislation that would authorize the mail carrier to offer buyouts or early retirement incentives to up to 100,000 employees and relax requirements for funding retiree health care in advance. But while the legislation would make the Postal Service jump through a few more hoops before shutting post offices and mail plants, it wouldn’t bar such closures outright.
Union-backed proposals, however, by Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and 26 Democratic senators would effectively prohibit large-scale plant closings for at least four years and also make it much harder to shutter rural post offices. The bill’s lead sponsor, Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., has not said where he stands on those proposed amendments, but postal observers see the tug-of-war as one reason that the bill–which was cleared for Senate floor action almost two months ago–has not yet been brought up for debate.
One final footnote: The bill’s co-sponsors include Sen. Susan Collins, a Republican from–yes–Maine.
Remember that U.S. Postal Service list of about 3,650 post offices under study for closure? The number is now closer to 3,270.
The reason: Since the original roster was released last July, 380 facilities have quietly been given a reprieve, according to the Postal Service.
In many cases, USPS officials decided that closing wasn’t feasible because there was no other post office within an acceptable distance. In other cases, they cited “negative community impact” or decided that closing wouldn’t be cost-effective, according to an official spreadsheet. Not surprisingly,one of the biggest gainers was Alaska, where 31 post offices have so far been spared, but many other states and the District of Columbia also had facilities come off the list.
And while congressional pressure has prompted the mail carrier to halt any actual P.O. closings until mid-May, the reviews continue, according to spokeswoman Sue Brennan, meaning that the list could shrink further.
“When we announced the moratorium,” Brennan said in an email, “we stated the established processes would continue.”
But changes are coming, according to Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe, after the Postal Service got an earful from communities upset at the possibility of losing their post offices.
“We’ll soon be issuing a framework for a revised retail strategy that we hope will accommodate many of the concerns that we have heard,” Donahoe said at Thursday’s Board of Governors meeting. “Especially in rural communities where we have a lot of low-activity post offices.”
Incidentally, FedLine got some feedback, too, from readers interested in seeing the entire list of post offices that have–at least for now–come off the closing review list. Your wish is our command, so here it is, broken down by state:
|MANLEY HOT SPRINGS||AK||99756|
|HOT SPRINGS PARK STATION||AR||71901|
|SAN BERNARDINO MO WINDOWS||CA||92403|
|LAGUNA WOODS MOBILE UNIT||CA||92637|
|PALA VISTA ANNEX||CA||92084|
|MARINE CORPS RECRUIT DEPO||CA||92140|
|DOWNTOWN WINTER GARDEN||FL||34787|
|DR MARTIN LUTHER KING JR||KY||40211|
|AIR MAIL FACILITY||KY||40221|
|POINTE A LA HACHE||LA||70082|
|INCOMING MAIL CTR NORTH||MA||02150|
|CLIFTON EAST END||MD||21213|
|SOUTHWEST CARRIER ANNEX||MI||48910|
|POINTE AUX PINS||MI||49775|
|SEVEN OAKS STA||MI||48235|
|SURF CITY FIN||NC||28445|
|WPAFB UNIT 3||OH||45433|
|TOWER CITY RETAIL||OH||44113|
|PAUL LAURENCE DUNBAR||OH||45417|
|WHITEHALL FINANCE UNIT||OH||43213|
|MARTIN LUTHER KING JR||OK||73111|
|B FREE FRANKLIN||PA||19106|
|CENTRAL STATION WASHINGTON||PA||15301|
|ROXBOROUGH POSTAL STORE||PA||19128|
|FAIRMOUNT FINANCE STATION||PA||19130|
|ANNEX FINANCE STATION||RI||02903|
|SHAW A F B||SC||29152|
|NAVAL AIR STATION MEMPHIS||TN||38054|
|MARTIN LUTHER KING||TX||77051|
|TWO HOU CNTR FIN U||TX||77010|
|DR MARTIN LUTHER KING JR||WI||53212|
There’s some moderately big news out of the Postal Regulatory Commission, which has denied the U.S. Postal Service’s request for fast-track review of plans to weaken first-class service standards and close up to approximately 250 mail processing plants.
Last month, USPS lawyers had asked the commission to issue a legally required advisory opinion by mid-April. But in a Tuesday order, the PRC said “the complexity of the case appears to justify the schedule as issued.” Under that timetable, the commission won’t release the opinion until late July at the earliest.
Long story short, this is bad news for postal leaders eager to get the downsizing under way as soon as possible. Although the commission’s opinions are non-binding, they are closely read on Capitol Hill. Thus, it will be politically difficult for the Postal Service to proceed with any plant closings before this particular opinion comes out.
Those proposed closings are ultimately expected to eliminate 28,000 jobs, a fact that does not enthuse members of Congress with plants in their states or districts. To mollify them, the Postal Service has already promised to hold off on any closings until mid-May. The latest order, however, probably means nothing will happen until at least mid-summer.
The Postal Service is disappointed by the decision, spokeswoman Sue Brennan said in a statement. “However, we will continue to move forward with our processes and communicate fully with stakeholders, as we pursue efforts to optimize our network and cut costs.”
Between crumbling finances, tense relations with Congress, and three major labor contracts still to hammer out, you might think the U.S. Postal Service has better things to do than pick an open records fight with another government agency.
Not according to the California Fair Political Practices Commission.
In a federal lawsuit filed this month, the commission charges the Postal Service with “improperly” claiming exemptions to the Freedom of Information Act to withhold information needed to show that a former elected official broke the law. To underscore its displeasure, the commission also put out a a news release in which Chairwoman Ann Ravel called the Postal Service’s stance “bizarre,” adding that USPS officials have routinely provided such information in the past. Because the Postal Service’s current position would also halt enforcement of similar laws in other states, Ravel said, “we feel compelled to take action.”
Citing the lawsuit, USPS spokesman Dave Partenheimer declined any comment.
The standoff has its origins in a 2008 recall election involving William Eisen, then an L.A.-area local school board member. According to the commission, Eisen allegedly sent out two mailings opposing his recall, but “falsely indicated” that a taxpayers’ group and regional political club were responsible. To make its case, however, the commission needs to know how many pieces of mail were sent out under Eisen’s bulk mailing permit number around the time of the alleged violation.
That’s what the Postal Service has refused to provide, on the grounds that the information is proprietary and “would not be a good business practice to disclose” under the FOIA, according to the lawsuit.
Backing the Postal Service’s position is the Office of Government Information Services, a kind of ombudsman at the National Archives and Records Administration. Despite President Obama’s instructions for agencies to administer the Freedom of Information Act with a presumption of openness, the Postal Service, which is basically self-supporting, “has commercial considerations that other agencies may not have and properly applied the exemptions under the guise of good business practices,” the lawsuit says in summarizing OGIS’ view.
As to the man behind the fracas, Eisen was in fact recalled, but has denied any wrongdoing, according to press accounts.