Success at the Post Office: Fewer Workers Are Paid to Do Nothing

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The U.S. Postal Service, which is expected to lose $9 billion in 2011 and may have to close 10% of post offices and resort to five-day-a-week mail delivery, has figured out at least one way to cut costs. By more carefully monitoring “standby time”—in which employees are paid to show up at work and do nothing—the Postal Service is on pace to save somewhere in the neighborhood of $20 million this year.

The Washington Post’s Federal Eye blog reports that in 2009, postal workers were paid for 1.2 million hours of standby time, costing a total of $30.9 million. For the first half of 2011, however, the Postal Service has paid $4.3 million for 170,666 hours of standby time.

What, exactly, is standby time? Due to union agreements, postal workers can’t be laid off or reassigned during periods of low mail volume. Even if they’re not needed on the job, postal employees still show up at work (and get paid) for what’s known as standby time—which basically amounts to hanging out in a break room, conference room, or cafeteria for a few hours, perhaps all day. The scene calls to mind The New Yorker story about “rubber rooms” where New York City teachers accused of incompetence or misconduct sit idly for months, sometimes years, doing nothing except showing up to continue collecting paychecks.

(MORE: What?! A Postage Stamp Should Really Cost How Much?)

Now, however, after audits revealed employees had been incorrectly billing the Postal Service for standby time, a new system is being put in place that’ll track standby payments more closely. While that should save taxpayers the Postal Service millions, it won’t stop the organization from experiencing billions in annual losses.

Brad Tuttle is a reporter at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @bradrtuttle. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.

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