The U.S. Postal Service and the unions representing its employees continue to battle over policy changes banning employees from taking unpaid time off for political campaigning. As Media Trackers was first to report in late 2016, the USPS inspector general investigated the practice after a whistle blower in a central Wisconsin post office reported the overtime issue to U.S. Senator Ron Johnson’s office. The Office of Special Counsel reported the Hatch Act violations after the USPS inspector general found the practice racked up $90,000 in overtime to cover for the employees who took time off to campaign.
OSC directed USPS to take action to remedy the problem. The USPS responded with a new policy in October 2017 which led to the new policy that the agency sent to unions in October 2017 that banned employees from taking unpaid time off for campaigning. But several unions representing postal workers challenged the change before an arbitrator who ruled in their favor earlier this month:
The arbitrator ruled OSC’s guidance was non-binding and postal management was still required to bargain over the changes.
“I have found the changes to be inconsistent with the agreement, and as such they cannot be fair, reasonable and equitable,” arbitrator Stephen Goldberg wrote in his decision.
Goldberg directed the Postal Service to rescind its policy changes and to “make whole” any employee who was denied leave without pay to engage in partisan political activity. He declined to set the parameters by which USPS must negotiate with the unions over the issue going forward, however, as the labor groups requested.
On Friday, the Postal Service said it would challenge the arbitrator’s decision in federal court, asking the Justice Department to intervene on its behalf, according to Government Executive:
“The Postal Service intends to formally request that the United States Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia file a petition in federal court seeking to have the arbitration award vacated,” said Dave Partenheimer, a spokesman for the agency. “We will work closely with the U.S. Attorney’s Office, and are also seeking support and additional guidance from the Office of Special Counsel in connection with that effort.”
Time is of the essence in the USPS appeal. A union representing postal workers announced in a monthly newsletter earlier this year that it plans on resuming the practice of having employees take unpaid leave to campaign during the mid-term elections this fall:
After the initial investigation, the OSC found that the policy created systemic violations of the Hatch Act that led to an institutional bias in favor of certain candidates. Despite that, if the arbitrator’s ruling stands the unions will be free to employ the practice again.
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 whistle blower, Timm Kopp, Told Media Trackers in an interview last year:
When we had some request for people to take leave and someone actually left our office for this last election, you could see it was causing overtime and that was my concern. So I started asking people about it; how the union was compensating the company if they were…To me, the Post Office has always stressed that it’s supposed to be a neutral entity. As a government office and as someone who interacts with the public every day, it’s very crucial that the Post Office did not look bias in any way. It turned into a little more than I thought it would be. But it was something that needed to be taken care of.
Kopp said Monday he’s concerned that the ruling will effect not only the Post Office but other government agencies as well. “I would like to find out how they’re going to monitor this. Nobody has given me any guidelines on how they’re going to monitor this at all.” Kopp believes legislation to address the practice is the only viable long-term solution. “It needs to be fixed.”
Kopp said the article in the magazine mentioned above was released in July, before the ruling came down.