Broken machinery and gaps in management and supervision delayed mail processing and decreased productivity in the United States Postal Service’s Baltimore region, according to a second audit report released Tuesday.
“This audit confirms what we’ve been hearing for months from constituents and saw on paper in the OIG’s previous audit released last month,” Reps. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger (D) and Kweisi Mfume (D) and U.S. Sens. Chris Van Hollen (D) and Benjamin L. Cardin (D) said in a joint statement. “Chronic mismanagement, persistent vacancies and inoperable equipment are contributing to unacceptable mail service that is causing our constituents frustration and even financial hardship.”
The audit conducted between September and December 2021 examined trends in processing volume, productivity and work hours at the Baltimore Processing and Distribution Center on Fayette Street.
This audit report is the second released by the Office of the Inspector General for the United States Postal Service in relation to inquiries made by Mfume and Ruppersberger.
A report examining customer service and mail delivery operations at the Dundalk, Essex, Rosedale, Parkville, Middle River, Loch Raven, Clifton East End Station, Druid Station and Carroll Station post offices was released in mid-November.
Following the release of the November audit report, the Maryland Congressional Delegation wrote a letter to the United States Postal Service, requesting an update on its readiness for the holiday mail surge.
In response, Scott R. Slusher, the director of government relations for the United States Postal Service, responded that over 2,200 employees had been hired in the Maryland region since late August, additional annex space had been leased for package sorting and an additional city carrier training academy was opened at the end of November.
“We are encouraged that the USPS is taking clear steps to improve mail service for the people we represent following our repeated calls for action,” the ten-member Maryland delegation said in a joint statement Wednesday. “That said, the Postal Service still has more work ahead to implement recommendations from the Inspector General and to ensure the timely delivery of Marylanders’ mail. On behalf of our constituents, we will continue pressing for progress until these issues are fixed.”
Based on the findings of this late December audit report, the Office of the Inspector General recommended that Chesapeake Division Director of Processing and Operations Dave Webster:
- Fill vacant manager and supervisor of distribution operations positions;
- Analyze absences and discuss attendance with employees to control unscheduled leave;
- Prioritize the replacement of the Baltimore Processing and Distribution Center’s long-broken tray management system to ensure it is repaired according to schedule;
- Create a plan to ensure appropriate supervision over processed mail during transport to the center’s dispatch dock; and
- Give employees additional training to improve accurate container load and depart scans.
Webster agreed with four of the five recommendations.
According to the report, auditors found that the mechanism to transport letter trays and reduce their handling within the processing and distribution facility has been broken since March 2019 — a full year before the public health emergency began.
Without the tray management system, workers must move containers of mail from floor to floor via elevator — a situation that, according to managers, added two hours to the process each day.
The tray management system was to be repaired in February 2021 but it was deemed “unrepairable,” the audit report said.
The Baltimore Processing and Distribution Center secured funding over the summer to install a new system next month.
Webster requested that the recommendation to prioritize the tray management system be closed, noting that the Postal Service is in the process of developing a Network Modernization plan to update, expand, or replace facilities that do not meet required standards for processing operations.
“Baltimore PD&C is a top priority for the Processing Facility modernization plan,” Webster wrote in response to the recommendation.
Management vacancies mean limited oversight
According to the report, the Baltimore Processing and Distribution Center processed 70 million fewer pieces of mail from Aug. 1, 2020, to July 31, 2021, than it processed during the same period a year earlier.
Yet the Baltimore hub reported a 14.6% increase in work hours and a 43.5% increase in overtime claims during the 2020-2021 time period as compared to 2019-2020.
Because of the pandemic, postal service employee availability in Baltimore was well below the national performance target: the Baltimore Processing and Distribution Center saw an average of approximately 65% employee availability during the audit period compared to its 95% availability goal.
The processing center also suffered from staggering management vacancies.
The Postal Service was under a hiring freeze from Aug. 2020 to May 2021. As of Nov. 1, 2021 — six months after the freeze was lifted — 50% of Manager of Distribution Operations and 19% of Supervisor of Distribution Operations positions were left unfilled, the report said.
Managers said that often mail was ready to be dispatched but lapses in supervision, communication and coordination kept it from getting to the dock on time.
The report also found that employees did not complete container load and depart scans consistently, causing management to have an inaccurate picture of facility performance and operations.
Webster conceded that the recommendations from the inspector general’s office were warranted.
“…[W]e acknowledge that attendance issues, manager and supervisor vacancies, financial limitations, and other issues impacted the efficiency at the Baltimore P&DC during the audit period, and therefore management generally agrees with the findings noted in the audit report,” he wrote in his response.