USPS watchdog report has senators wanting answers, possible firings

The U.S. Postal Service has caught the ire of three senators looking for answers — and possibly for heads to roll — after a watchdog report found the agency significantly underreported late mail delivery.

In a letter to Postmaster General Megan Brennan, Sens. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) and Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.) urged the Postal Service to “take immediate action” after the Office of Inspector General reported in August that USPS had underreported about 2 billion pieces of mail nationwide over the course of a year.

News of the delayed mail delivery should come as no surprise to the senators, who have previously complained about the timeliness of delivery in rural parts of their respective states. Constituents from Missouri have submitted “numerous photographic examples of mail sitting in bins waiting to be delivered,” despite records showing it had been sent, while Heitkamp’s office has collected hundreds of mail service complaints through its Fix My Mail initiative.

“The mail continues to be a vital lifeline in rural American and the dependence on this service as a way to deliver goods as well as connect individuals, communities and businesses demands that it be a reliable and accurate mode of delivery,” the senators wrote.

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However, the OIG report does underscore the severity of the problem, even though USPS management questions how investigators extrapolated their data.

While the OIG report recommends formal training requirements for mail processing center staff and supervisors, Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) said employees should be fired if anyone intentionally tampered with the late mail count.

“To be clear, any employee who deliberately delayed mail delivery or who knowingly misreported mail delivery should be terminated for violating the trust of America’s hardworking taxpayers and postal ratepayers,” Tester wrote in a separate letter to the postmaster general.

Meanwhile, the Postal Regulatory Commission will soon conclude its review of the Postal Service’s rate-setting system and may give USPS the authority to lift a cap on the price of postage stamps. A recent postal industry analysis says USPS would have to raise the price of a stamp to 60 cents to avoid bankruptcy.

Watchdog: $85.1M at risk for cash-strapped USPS

The OIG report claims $85.1 million in USPS revenue is at risk due to the underreporting of late-arriving mail. To put that in perspective, the Postal Service ended the third quarter of fiscal 2017 with a $2.1 billion loss, and has defaulted on tens of billions of dollars in congressionally-mandated payments to pre-fund health benefits for postal retirees.

The USPS watchdog office arrived at its findings after sending auditors to eight mail processing facilities across the country — four in rural locations, and four in urban hubs. During the weeklong review, inspectors determined the mail processing centers had about 1.8 million pieces of late-arriving mail, but only reported 121,000 pieces (7 percent) to the Mail Condition Reporting System, which facilities use to report their daily mail count.

The underreporting was more acutely noticed at the rural centers, which only reported 10,000 of the 1.5 million pieces of late-arrival mail — less than 1 percent of the total. Extrapolating that data outward, the OIG estimated that mail processing center underreported 2 billion pieces of late mail from March 1, 2016, to Feb. 28, 2017.

“When mail condition reports are not accurate, management uses incorrect information to make decisions on staffing, mail processing equipment use, preventative maintenance, and the transportation of mail,” the report stated. “These decisions affect the Postal Service’s ability to meet its mail service commitments.

USPS management agreed with the OIG’s recommendations that local management review and validate the accuracy of mail condition reports, but disagreed with the watchdog’s use of eight processing centers to represent the state of more than 250 such facilities nationwide.

“We selected sites that represent the geographic and population density and breadth of the U.S. to provide unbiased insight,” OIG said, in response to that feedback.

A Postal Service spokesman said USPS will have a comment in response to the senators’ letters and the OIG report, but did not immediately provide comment for this story.