Nancy Campos' back ached as she loaded more than 100 Amazon packages onto her truck. The 59-year-old grandmother, a mail carrier for the U.S. Postal Service, had worked 13 days in a row without a lunch break, and now she was delivering on the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday to keep up with a never-ending flow of boxes.
At the end of her shift that January day, Campos filled out her time sheet. Then she took a picture of it — for proof.
"I knew what was going to happen," said Campos, who delivers mail in Midland, Texas, "because it happens every pay period."
Two weeks later, when she checked her paystub in the payroll system, she said she was missing six hours of overtime pay. That added up to about $201 in lost wages — a week's worth of groceries.
Postal workers across the country share her frustration.
The Postal Service regularly cheats mail carriers out of their pay, according to a Center for Public Integrity investigation. Managers at hundreds of post offices around the country have illegally underpaid hourly workers for years, arbitrators and federal investigators have found.
Private arbitration records tell part of the story. From 2010 to 2019, at least 250 managers in 60 post offices were caught changing mail carriers' time cards to show them working fewer hours, resulting in unpaid wages, according to a batch of arbitration award summaries obtained by Public Integrity for cases filed by one of the three major postal unions.
Supervisors found to be cheating were rarely disciplined — often receiving only a warning or more training. In four cities, arbitration documents show, post office managers continued to alter time cards after promising union leaders they would stop.
Since 2005, meanwhile, the Postal Service has been cited by the federal government 1,150 times for underpaying letter carriers and other employees, including one case that involved 164 violations, according to Labor Department data obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request. The agency determined that those workers lost about $659,000 in pay. But it allowed the Postal Service to pay back less than half after negotiations with the agency — a common practice at the Labor Department. About 19% of the cases did not indicate whether the Postal Service paid back employees.
These findings point to widespread wage theft at the iconic quasi-governmental institution. Yet they offer only a partial view of the problem. Not captured are any arbitration cases filed by other postal unions or wage theft grievances settled before reaching arbitration.
Cases keep cropping up as the Postal Service struggles to pay off $188 billion in debt and unfunded liabilities, accrued largely because federal law requires it to prepay retiree healthcare and pension benefits. The agency has cut nearly 142,000 jobs since 2007, and in March 2020, it needed a $10 billion emergency loan from Congress to help pay its bills.
Mail carriers say their supervisors face intense pressure to keep overtime costs down. At the same time, pandemic-fueled spikes in online ordering are overwhelming mail carriers with packages. And they can't count on getting paid for all their work.
A spokesperson for the Postal Service, David Partenheimer, said the agency does not condone supervisors making unsupported timecard adjustments and takes such allegations seriously.
"This position is messaged to the postal workforce directly from postal leaders, including the Vice President, Delivery Operations, who periodically reissues policies regarding appropriate timecard administration for supervisors," Partenheimer wrote in an email to Public Integrity. He declined to comment on specific cases.
Campos said the agency still owes her thousands of dollars for two other wage theft grievances they settled before she discovered the missing overtime pay in January. She said her boss promised to pay her back for working the holiday but never did.
"I just had it. Enough is enough," said Campos, who shared copies of her timesheets and pay stubs with Public Integrity. "We are depending on that money. When you get shorted, it's the most horrible feeling."
A systemic problem
Every morning, Campos and thousands of other mail carriers across the United States swipe their badges at a local post office to clock in for work. They sort mail for their routes, check undelivered items and load up their trucks. They swipe their badge a few more times when they begin and end their delivery route and other tasks, and once again when they're done for the day.
All of this is supposed to happen within an eight-hour shift for most carriers. That's because the Postal Service doesn't want to pay overtime, which is 50% extra per hour under federal law. The inspector general has repeatedly admonished the post office for spending billions of dollars in overtime each year and has urged managers to cut back.
But mail carriers say it's impossible to get back in time. After all, the Postal Service is notoriously short-staffed at a time when carriers are delivering a record number of packages. In 2019 alone, they delivered 1.5 billion items for Amazon — nearly a third of the online retailer's packages.
That means carriers log a lot of extra hours. And it's not uncommon for managers to go into the system and delete some of them. Sometimes their changes show carriers ending their shifts earlier or taking an unpaid lunch break, according to Public Integrity's review of private arbitration decisions maintained by the National Association of Letter Carriers, a labor union with nearly 290,000 members — about 45% of the agency's total workforce.
In most of these cases, managers did not submit the required paperwork to explain the changes or notify the affected employee. Other times, supervisors just told carriers to clock out after eight hours and keep working without pay.
That happened regularly to Maverick Tran and some of his colleagues in San Jose, California, according to a 2019 decision by an independent arbitrator.
Tran told the arbitrator — who acts like a judge in this type of legal dispute — that two supervisors often told him to manually clock out at 6 p.m. if he was running late while delivering the mail.
"I still haven't unloaded my truck or empty out anything, but I would be off the clock," he said during a closed-door hearing at the main San Jose post office.
A co-worker said managers would regularly clock him out themselves before he returned to the station. Another carrier said they instructed him to punch out before the end of his shift to avoid "unauthorized overtime."
One of those co-workers, Rafael Zambrano-Lay, said he was so scared about returning to his post office past 6 p.m. that he would skip meals, forego rest breaks and run while carrying mail to customers' homes.
Zambrano-Lay did not respond to a request for comment and Tran declined to discuss the case.
Their union representative told the arbitrator that nearly every supervisor in San Jose's 12 post offices had improperly manipulated employee hours each week for at least three years. In an eight-month period in 2017, the union found that these unauthorized changes shorted mail carriers out of 77 regular hours and 1,864 overtime hours, collectively costing them anywhere from $52,000 to $90,000 in lost wages.
In the arbitration hearing, a Postal Service representative did not explain why managers changed carriers' time cards. He said the behavior was not widespread.
Nancy Hutt, the arbitrator, disagreed. After reviewing time cards for 240 mail carriers in San Jose, Hutt said she grew alarmed. The data "reflects a widespread practice by management of willfully and repetitively deleting and altering time records of Letter Carriers," she wrote in her decision.
Other arbitrators expressed similar shock when reviewing such allegations.
"Heinous," an arbitrator in Nashville, Tennessee, wrote in 2018 when presented with evidence that a manager deleted carriers' work hours. "It's an act, in my view, on the same level as theft."
In Boston, arbitrator Katherine Morgan called the pattern of wage theft "systemic" and "egregious." In a 2019 decision, she described the time card changes as serious federal offenses "which cannot be treated lightly, and which could lead to fines and even imprisonment."
In all, arbitrators found that postal managers in at least nine states illegally altered mail carriers' time cards in recent years, cheating more than 900 mail carriers out of pay. They ordered the Postal Service to stop falsifying time cards and pay back employees they cheated.
"It's hard to believe," said Jennifer Williams, a former mail carrier in the Atlanta area. "This is a government job. Nobody should go to work and wonder if they're going to get paid."
"I would never have expected this from the post office," said Campos, the Texas mail carrier. "This used to be an honorable job."
Campos, who has worked as a carrier for three years, says she filed three grievances against her supervisors for unpaid work. They have since settled the complaints, she said, and management agreed to pay her a yet-to-be determined amount, including the extra hours she worked when delivering an "overburdened route" — a long one that regularly takes more time to finish than it's supposed to.
Several of her co-workers are also waiting to be paid for similar reasons, she said, but she suspects that no one will be punished for ripping them off.
The arbitrator in the San Jose case told the Postal Service to pay employees what they're owed. Tran, Zambrano-Lay and other carriers sued the agency in federal court a few months later. They want cash damages in addition to back pay. As of February, the Postal Service had paid back employees in that case a total of $570,000, attorneys for both sides reported to the court.