Jim O’Brien, a vice-president at Time Inc. and chairman of the Mailers Council, recently guest-blogged on the U.S. Postal Service’s inspector general’s web site on the subject of “automation refugees.”
O’Brien explains the origination of the term:
Back in 1990, Halstein Stralberg coined the term “automation refugees” to describe Postal Service mail processing employees who were assigned to manual operations when automation eliminated the work they had been doing. Since the Postal Service couldn’t lay off these employees, they had to be given something to do, and manual processing seemed to have an inexhaustible capacity to absorb employees by the simple expedient of reducing its productivity. The result was a sharp decline in mail processing productivity and a sharp increase in mail processing costs for Periodicals class. Periodicals class cost coverage has declined steadily since that time.
O’Brien then tells of visiting seventeen mail processing facilities as part of a Joint Mail Processing Task Force in 1998. During those visits he noted that the periodical sorting machines always happened to be down even though the machines were supposed to be operating seventeen hours a day. Although the machines weren’t working, manual operations were always up and running.
A decade later, O’Brien points out that the situation apparently hasn’t changed:
More Periodicals mail is manually processed than ever, and manual productivity continues to decline. Periodicals Class now only covers 75% of its costs. How can this dismal pattern of declining productivity and rising costs continue more than two decades after it was first identified, especially when the Postal Service has invested millions of dollars in flats automation equipment?
O’Brien probably answered this question when he noted that the USPS couldn’t lay off these automation refugees back in 1990.
As I’ve discussed before, the USPS has a major union problem. A new Government Accountability Office report cites as a problem the fact that most postal employees are protected by “no-layoff” provisions. The USPS must also let go lower-cost part-time and temporary employees before it can lay off a full-time worker not covered by a no-layoff provision.
Unfortunately, recent comments from members of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee showed an unjustified concern for how potential reforms would affect postal employees. Labor isn’t the only problem facing the USPS, but Congress needs to understand that the postal service’s expensive unionized workforce is a crippling burden.