Our objective was to assess the management of Postal Service employees in absence without leave (AWOL) status to identify opportunities to timely address employees in AWOL status and manage cost.
In March 2020, the president declared COVID-19 to be a national emergency and signed the Families First Coronavirus Response Act into law. Following that act’s expiration, the American Rescue Plan Act was signed into law in March 2021. Both acts allowed eligible federal employees to take additional emergency paid sick and family leave.
Given the new laws, the Postal Service worked with its unions to implement a liberal leave policy to temporarily expand employee leave options. To use emergency and liberal leave, employees were required to provide documentation validating their absence.
Unscheduled leave is any absence from work that is not requested and approved in advance. For unscheduled absences, the employee must notify the supervisor or proper official as soon as the employee realizes he or she will be unable to report for duty. Immediately upon returning to duty, the employee must submit a Postal Service (PS) Form 3971, Request for or Notification of Absence, and explain the reason for the unscheduled leave.
AWOL is a non-pay status resulting from a determination that no type of leave — including leave without pay (LWOP) — can be granted, either because the employee did not obtain advance authorization for the absence or the request for leave was denied. AWOL absences may be used as the basis for disciplinary action. Further, the Postal Service cannot replace an AWOL employee’s position until they are officially terminated and removed from the payroll.
We analyzed employees in AWOL status nationwide from fiscal years 2018 through 2020. We did not include scheduled leave or other unscheduled leave other than AWOL in our analysis. We focused on AWOL hours because when employees are AWOL their job responsibilities still need to be completed, at times by paying others overtime. In addition, AWOL employees are eligible to receive health benefits unless the employee is removed or reaches 365 days in LWOP status and is eligible for the termination of coverage. To accomplish our objective, we conducted visits at 24 judgmentally selected sites in the Atlantic and Central areas.
While we understand the challenges the Postal Service faced during the pandemic, we identified two areas of improvement for the Postal Service to timely address employees in AWOL status and manage cost.
First, opportunities exist for Postal Service facility managers and supervisors to improve their management of AWOL employees. Specifically, they did not always properly record AWOL hours, used different guidance to execute progressive discipline, and did not always collect or maintain supporting documentation for employees on AWOL.
- Nineteen of 24 (79 percent) facility managers and supervisors in four different districts initially categorized employees’ unscheduled leave hours as “AWOL.” The remaining five (21 percent) categorized employees’ unscheduled leave hours as “LWOP.” While managers and supervisors often referred to policy on leave control, the guidance was conflicting and led to inconsistent interpretation.
- District offices developed their own processes and template letters based on disciplinary guidance and union agreements to address AWOL employees’ behavior because there was no standardized guidance for how to discipline extended AWOL employees. District Human Resources personnel instructed supervisors to follow these processes and use the templates on their district websites to execute disciplinary actions for AWOL employees. However, supervisors did not always follow the guidance because they were unfamiliar with those processes and templates. Establishing standardized guidance would promote consistency and allow the AWOL discipline process to be handled more efficiently.
- Supervisors did not always collect or maintain supporting documentation for AWOL employees because they were not adequately trained on managing and documenting disciplinary actions for AWOL employees.
By not improving its management of AWOL employees, the Postal Service risks making procedural errors and wasting resources when trying to prepare and issue discipline letters to correct employee behavior. In addition, during the interviews conducted, management stated they were often prevented from issuing the disciplinary action.
We estimated the Postal Service paid nearly $3.8 million annually in health benefit premiums for employees who remained on extended AWOL status (longer than 60 calendar days).
Second, management did not always include all AWOL employees’ disciplinary and health benefit documentation in their electronic official personnel folders. Specifically, we determined that 178 of 195 sampled employees (91 percent) on extended AWOL did not have all disciplinary actions or health benefit documentation included in their electronic official personnel folder. Although the Postal Service has criteria detailing which disciplinary and health benefit documents should be maintained in an employee’s official personnel folder, management retained some documentation in hard copy form in the district or local offices instead of in the employee’s electronic official personnel folder. Additionally, Postal Service personnel did not always verify whether all appropriate AWOL employees’ disciplinary and health benefit documentation was uploaded in the electronic official personnel folder.
Further, management did not incorporate a timeline of administrative actions for 73 of 195 sampled AWOL employees (37 percent) after taking disciplinary action.
The Postal Service did not have specific policy on detailing what administrative actions should be recorded in eRMS.
When employee administrative actions and health benefit documents are not properly maintained, future disciplinary actions or health benefit enrollment and termination can be delayed. Additionally, when management does not document employee administrative actions, they may not be able to provide support to Labor Relations and union officials when administrative actions are issued.
We recommended management:
- Update policy to clarify how to appropriately record leave for AWOL employees and distribute it to all supervisors and managers to ensure consistent application.
- Review disciplinary guidance and templates on district websites to ensure consistency and, as appropriate, update and communicate guidance.
- Provide regularly updated eRMS and discipline training for managers and supervisors to facilitate management of AWOL employees.
- Reiterate to management their responsibility to complete, timely review, and maintain AWOL employee attendance documentation.
- Clarify and communicate where AWOL employees’ disciplinary and health benefit documents should be maintained.
- Develop a process to verify all appropriate AWOL employees’ disciplinary and health benefits documentation are timely reviewed and uploaded when sent to their electronic official personnel folder.
- Review and update guidance on the HRSSC’s website to ensure appropriate documentation is included in an employee’s electronic official personnel folder.
- Establish policy to define how to properly record administrative actions in eRMS.