The U.S. Postal Service allowed some workers to take months off of work to campaign for Hillary Clinton, according to a government watchdog.
Postal workers were released from their duties to perform campaign work through their union, the National Association of Letter Carriers (NALC), according to an Office of Special Counsel report. The OSC concluded that the agency "engaged in systemic violations" of the Hatch Act, which regulates federal employees' involvement in political campaigns.
"The Labor 2016 program sought to ‘elect Hillary Clinton and pro-worker candidates across the country,'" the report said. "USPS headquarters essentially guaranteed that carriers would be released to engage in political activity, without consideration of operational needs or concerns."
The Hatch Act allows federal workers to engage in political activities when they are off the clock and out of uniform. Union members did not receive pay from the agency during their time away from the job and the report did not find any instances of workers engaged in any wrongdoing during their time on the job, leading OSC to conclude that "disciplinary action is not warranted." The Hatch Act violations came at a system-wide level, according to the OSC report, because the USPS privileged lengthy leaves of absence for political activities over other types of leave.
"Only carriers who wanted to campaign for NALC's endorsed candidates were given the opportunity to take several weeks of leave on short notice, over the objections of local supervisors," the report said.
The union had sent a list to the USPS requesting time-off for nearly 100 postal carriers to perform volunteer activities at the NALC's expense. The OSC report laid the blame on mid-level managers, who mistook the request as a directive and overruled local officials who voiced concern that the release could hinder postal operations.
"Despite their objections, mid-level USPS managers, guided by [REDACTED] communications, instructed local supervisors to release all listed carriers on union official [Leave Without Pay] so they could participate in NALC's political activity," the report said.
The report concluded that agency leaders did so to "engender goodwill in its working relationship with the union," rather than to advance any specific political agenda. The OSC took issue with the lengthy absences that occurred in the closing days of the 2016 election, which departed from standard leave requests that usually last "either a few days at a time or a few hours per day over several days." The length of some requests appeared to baffle local managers.
"Explain to me why we are releasing people for 30 days," a Waukesha, Wisc., postmaster responded to one request. A supervisor responded, "we have to release."
Another Wisconsin manager protested to management about the lengthy absences, but was ultimately overruled after a back and forth with supervisors.
"This creates a huge staffing issue at the WI Rapids Post Office," the local manager said in an email. "This office is already … short staffed."
The two-month leave time was granted, and the employees did not return to work until after the election. The absences drove up operational costs, as remaining employees worked overtime to cover for the missing carriers.
"Wisconsin Rapids went into both high overtime and penalty overtime rates of massive amounts for this period of time, which had significant operating expense impact on the office," a Wisconsin postal worker told investigators.
The report says that employees engaged in numerous volunteer activities to assist Democratic campaigns, including knocking on doors, phone banking, and other get-out-the-vote activities. The union, which represents 215,000 postal workers, rallied around Hillary Clinton in the general election. It spent $5.6 million during the 2016 cycle. Nearly 90 percent of its contributions went to Democratic candidates, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
The postal service said that it "fully accepts" the finding of the report and will work with the OSC to implement reforms and avoid future accusations of Hatch Act violations.
"In order to prevent any future unintentional violations of the Hatch Act in this regard, the Postal Service fully accepts and will fully implement all of the recommendations and directions of the OSC," the agency said in a statement. "The Postal Service will work with the OSC to design corrective measures … in order to prevent any future violations of the Hatch Act."
OSC gave the agency until August 31 to draft reforms.
UPDATE 4:45 P.M.: NALC President Fredric Rolando said that the report exonerated the union and demonstrated that its members abided by federal law. He rejected the conclusion that granting workers leave could violate the Hatch Act.
"We reject the OSC's conclusions that the granting of LWOP represents either a ‘systematic violation of the Hatch Act' or an ‘institutional bias in favor of NALC's endorsed political candidates,'" he said in a statement.
UPDATE 4:30 P.M.: A previous version of this story said that NALC endorsed Bernie Sanders. American Postal Workers Union, rather than NALC, endorsed Sanders.