USPS OIG – Informal Grievance Oversight

Objective

The Postal Service defines a grievance as a dispute, difference, or disagreement between parties or a complaint lodged by a party regarding wages, hours, or conditions of employment. The informal grievance process allows employees to discuss and settle grievances with their immediate supervisor; however, if there is no resolution, the employee or union can file a formal grievance.

While informal grievances do not require supporting documentation, formal grievance files must have a copy of the informal grievance appeal and applicable Postal Service forms. Both types of grievances are entered in the Grievance and Arbitration Tracking System (GATS), which is used to pay grievance settlements, and to document and track the steps in the grievance process and payments made to the grievant. GATS includes issue codes, which categorize the type of grievance.

Article 30 of the national agreements enables both parties at the local level to enter into a local implementation process to review and negotiate over certain work rules and other terms and conditions of employment. It also provides that a current local memorandum of understanding (MOU) between the Postal Service and its unions remains in effect during the term of a new national agreement unless the parties change it through subsequent local implementation or related impasse procedures.

Supervisors receive a number of training courses on grievance handling that include, but are not limited to labor relations for operations, GATS requirements, and overtime administration. Additionally, supervisors have the authority to settle and make informal grievance payments to an employee at any time. Some districts have implemented a monetary threshold that requires a higher-level manager review of grievance payments that exceed a certain amount prior to payment. Since Postal Service policy does not require monetary thresholds, not all districts have this additional control.

Our objective was to assess the effectiveness of the Postal Service’s informal grievance oversight. We reviewed informal grievance processes for 10 judgmentally selected facilities in eight Postal Service districts within four Postal Service areas. Specifically, we selected eight facilities based on their high grievance costs and high number of grievance payments and two based on their lower grievance costs compared to similarly sized facilities. These facilities included both processing and retail functions.

Findings

The Postal Service’s oversight of informal grievances is not effective. Informal grievance costs and number of payments have continued to trend upward from fiscal years (FY) 2013 through 2018. Specifically:

  • Costs have increased from about $30.4 million in FY 2013 to $48.8 million in FY 2018 (61 percent). The number of payments increased from 344,459 in FY 2013 to 435,912 (27 percent) in FY 2018. More recently, from FY 2017 to 2018, costs increased from about $37.6 million to $48.8 million (30 percent) and payments increased from 355,071 to 435,912 (23 percent).
  • Over the five-year period (FYs 2013 through 2018), the Southern Area paid the highest amount of informal grievance costs ($69.2 million) and had the highest number of payments (787,646) compared to the other six Postal Service areas.
  • In FY 2018 only, the Western Area paid the highest amount of informal grievance costs, totaling about $18.2 million over 144,090 payments. Of the Postal Service’s 67 districts, the Houston District had the highest amount of informal grievance costs and payments totaling about $5.7 million consisting of 78,115 payments. At the employee level, one employee in the Greater Michigan District received informal grievance payments totaling $40,475, represented by 93 payments.

In addition, opportunities exist to improve informal grievance oversight. Specifically:

  • Management in seven of the eight districts had established monetary thresholds for higher-level management review of informal grievance payments. However, there was no consistency among the districts regarding communicating threshold requirements and documenting reviews of payments that exceeded the thresholds. Management at two of the seven districts communicated their threshold requirements verbally rather than in writing. Additionally, none of the seven districts documented their reviews of grievance payments, but communicated their reviews verbally.
  • Of the 25 supervisors interviewed, 24 did not take the one-time mandatory Labor Relations: Grievance Handling course; seven did not take the one-time mandatory New Supervisor Program course or its predecessor, Associate Supervisor Program; and seven did not take either course. In addition, nine of the 25 supervisors who took at least one of the mandatory training classes indicated that the course content did not contain enough practical knowledge to handle specific grievance issues.

In addition, management did not maintain a central repository or database of contractual documentation, such as local MOUs and related settlement agreements and could not always identify total grievance payments associated with each of these contractual obligations obtained from the sites we reviewed. This hindered management’s ability to effectively track and monitor financial obligations, negotiate and make changes to prospective agreements, and identify potential issues and/or training needs.

Finally, in many instances, GATS issue codes were outdated, inaccurate, or non-descriptive in GATS and the GATS Entries Handbook. There were 1,721 issue codes used in GATS, between FYs 2013 and 2018 and 2,104 codes in the January 2000 GATS Handbook.

These conditions occurred because:

  • Management does not have a plan to monitor and reduce informal grievance costs and number of payments and needs an aggressive plan with milestones to accurately identify and address grievance causes.
  • There was no Postal Service policy or guidance for establishing and communicating monetary thresholds that required higher-level manager review or for documenting reviews of grievances that exceeded set thresholds.
  • Management did not enforce the training policy and supervisors indicated that methods other than course training were more effective learning tools in obtaining knowledge on grievances.
  • There was no requirement to maintain a central repository or database of local MOUs and related agreements between the Postal Service and the unions.
  • Management had not reviewed or updated GATS issue codes since calendar years 2006 and 2007.

Reducing informal grievance costs and payments and increasing the accountability for grievance oversight are critical to ensuring that settlements are valid and equitable; reducing the Postal Service’s risk of additional grievances being filed and improper payments being administered without detection; and reducing costs to process settlement payments. These factors may also affect employee morale, vacancy, and turnover rates.

Recommendations

We recommended management:

  • Develop an action plan, with milestones, to manage and reduce informal grievances costs and payments.
  • Formalize and communicate monetary thresholds for informal grievances and review payments that exceed the established thresholds.
  • Reiterate compliance with the Postal Service’s training policy that requires all supervisors to attend mandatory grievance handling courses and review existing training curriculum to ensure it adequately covers grievance handling procedures.
  • Establish a centralized repository or database of local MOUs and other contractual agreements.
  • Implement and communicate tracking methods for payments stemming from these local MOUs and other contractual agreements to allow for transparency and accountability.
  • Update issue codes in GATS and the GATS Entries Handbook to include clear definitions and instructions for use and establish timeframes for periodic updates.

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