Investigation Finds USPS Hatch Act Violation

An investigation requested by U.S. Senator Ron Johnson has found that  U.S. Postal Service practices during the 2016 election cycle violated the Hatch Act. Media Trackers exclusively reported last week that the investigation would likely find Hatch Act violations and we obtained the U.S. Office of Special Council’s final report on the probe Tuesday. Media Trackers first reported of the probe’s existence in December, 2016.

The Hatch Act is a federal law that restricts the political activity of federal and Postal Service employees while on duty, on government property, wearing an official uniform, or using a government vehicle. It also prohibits candidates campaigning for election to public office on leased or owned postal property.

The OSC, at U.S. Senator Ron Johnson’s request, investigated whether leave without pay (LWOP) granted to postal carriers to engage in union campaign activities violated the Hatch Act. Johnson’s request was prompted by a complaint from a constituent; a Central Wisconsin postal worker who said the absences to engage in union campaign activity left local post offices thin on staff. The OSC report says the “Labor 2016 program” targeted multiple races across the country. But the OSC primarily reviewed the union official LWOP requests for the Lakeland District in Wisconsin, and the Philadelphia Metro District.

OSC found that NALC (National Association of Letter Carriers) provided lists of letter carriers to participate in the Labor 2016 program to the manager of Labor Relations  for Policy and Programs and USPS’s primary liaison with NALC. The lists were then emailed to USPS officials at lower echelons of management, according to the report. These officials interpreted communications as directives to release the carriers on union official LWOP.

The report says local supervisors raised concerns about the impact on postal operations and objected to the release of some carriers. Despite their objections, mid-level USPS managers instructed the local supervisors to release all listed carriers on union official LWOP so they could take part in NALC’s political activity. As Media Trackers previously reported, these absences resulted in thousands of dollars of overtime being accrued at post offices around the country.

OSC’s investigation did not determine that USPS officials helped the NALC identify or select carriers to take part in the program. The report also says evidence does not support a finding that USPS officials sought to assist NALC’s favored candidates in achieving victory. Rather, the report says the evidence suggests that the practice was intended to engender goodwill in its working relationship with the union. The report says the practice is longstanding, going back many election cycles.

But OSC did conclude that USPS management took official actions to enable NALC’s political activity. The report says these efforts constitute a systemic violation of the Hatch Act. Specifically, USPS’s practice of facilitating carrier releases for the union’s political activity resulted in an institutional bias in favor of NALC’s endorsed political candidates, which the Hatch Act prohibits. As a result, the OSC isn’t seeking individual disciplinary action but says agency-wide corrective action is necessary.

The report says the NALC chose members who were described as “activists” who were “capable of doing this work” in each targeted battleground state. Media Trackers previously reported that  six key battleground states, including Wisconsin, were targeted for the effort. The postal worker who complained to Johnson told Media Trackers in December that the workers campaigned for senate candidate Russ Feingold and presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, both Democrats.

The report indicates that the  second round of releases created staffing level issues at several Wisconsin postal locations: Delafield, Green Bay, Marshfield and Neenah. The report says that based on previous experience in which pushing back had proven futile, local managers accommodated the requests. In Marshfield, an employee was released even though the weekly schedule already had been posted and the employee was scheduled to work. It was the Marshfield incident that led to the contact with Johnson’s office.

The investigation concluded that the identified institutional Hatch Act issues are not exclusively attributable to anyone one employee, so disciplinary action was not deemed appropriate in this case. But the OSC says USPS must prevent future violations through changes in its practices regarding union official leave without pay. The report says agency representatives appear ready to take the steps necessary to comply with the Hatch Act. OSC asked that the Postal Service have the corrective action plan ready by August 31.

Johnson’s committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs is holding a hearing on the findings Wednesday.

You can read Media Trackers previous reporting on this story here and here.

You can read the OSC report here