(AP) -- 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.
This story was provided to The Associated Press by The Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit news organization based in Washington, D.C.
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."
Williams, 36, said co-workers warned her to keep track of her hours when she was hired as a mail carrier in February 2020. She said she didn't get her first paycheck and had to file a grievance with the union to get paid. When her second paycheck arrived, Williams said, she was missing five hours of overtime. Another supervisor told Williams that her boss had deleted the hours, according to a lawsuit she filed against the Postal Service in federal court.
When she brought up the missing overtime to her boss on the phone, she said her boss berated her. A few days later, Williams said the mail truck she was driving broke down and she was fired for not finishing her route. She sued in September 2020, claiming she was illegally fired for complaining about wage theft.
"I was really upset because I was depending on working at the post office to keep myself afloat," said Williams, who said she had to take a low-paid job at a filter factory after she was fired.
Partenheimer, the Postal Service spokesperson, declined to comment on the lawsuit. But in court records, lawyers for the agency denied that a supervisor deleted Williams' overtime hours or that she was fired for complaining about missing pay. Both parties settled the case in June, with the Postal Service agreeing to pay Williams $2,356 in damages and $3,143 in attorney's fees.
Williams said she misses working for the post office. She once viewed the agency the same way thousands of other Black Americans have before her: as a stable job with good benefits and decent pay.
The Postal Service has long been one of the largest employers of African Americans in the United States. During the civil rights era, it was a place where Black workers could advance their careers without as many barriers as the private sector, said Frederick Gooding, an African American studies professor at Texas Christian University.
"The (Postal Service) was in many ways a beacon of hope and opportunity," said Gooding, author of the book "American Dream Deferred: Black Federal Workers in Washington, D.C., 1941-1981."
To this day, Black workers are overrepresented in the Postal Service. Though 12% of the overall U.S. workforce, they make up 19% of the agency's mail carriers, 38% of its clerks and 31% of its mail handlers. Asians also represent a larger-than-average share of the postal workforce.
Wage theft within the agency might disproportionately harm these workers, but that's unclear. Arbitration documents and Labor Department records don't track each employee's race or ethnicity. Yet the repeated paycheck theft tests the notion that the Postal Service is a desirable place to work.
"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.
Accountability is rare
About two dozen employees gathered for a tense meeting at a San Antonio post office in February 2019. The station manager, Ruben Vela, was agitated. He told them that union outsiders were arriving to cause trouble.
When union steward Steven Ramirez showed up, Vela got in his face and berated him in front of everyone at the meeting, a witness said.
Ramirez had discovered that Vela and at least one other supervisor regularly deleted 25 employees' work hours over a period of two years, according to an arbitration decision from later that year. In some cases, the arbitrator found, the other supervisor forged an employee's initials approving the changes.
Employees who were at the 2019 meeting later said that Vela described the time card changes as a "simple mistake."
Public Integrity was unable to reach Vela for comment.
Kirk Fraser, one of the mail carriers at the meeting, said he was devastated, according to the arbitration document. He called the practice an "immoral and egregious" breach of trust.
"Clearly, falsifying dozens of (USPS) forms does not equate to a simple mistake, but rather something that was done deliberately," he told the arbitrator, according to the decision. He and some of his co-workers said they didn't understand why Vela wasn't fired.
Instead, the Postal Service said in arbitration that Vela was temporarily restricted from accessing the time card system until he could retake training on the proper way to handle time card changes. The agency told the arbitrator that they had paid back the employees.
Union representatives Richard Gould and Adam Reyna were incensed with the light rebuke. They asked the arbitrator to order the Postal Service to ban Vela from supervising letter carriers.
"This kind of thievery would have resulted in the immediate removal if perpetrated by a letter carrier, but inexplicably the Postal Service appears to have taken the position that (its) supervisors should be somehow held to a lower standard than the craft employees they manage," the union representatives stated.
The Postal Service representative argued that any further punishment would impact the supervisor's career and rob him of "due process." The arbitrator decided not to mandate harsher discipline, agreeing with that argument.
A similar scene has played out in several closed-door hearings across the country. The Postal Service will acknowledge the unlawful time card changes and agree to pay back workers. A union advocate then asks an arbitrator to sanction the supervisors involved. The arbitrators say they can't under the contract, ordering supervisors to take training instead.
That doesn't always make a difference. A union representative begged an arbitrator in Chicago to take action after supervisors were found deleting employee work hours at all 11 offices in the city. Internal mediators had already ordered those supervisors to stop multiple times, but they wouldn't.
"Cease and desist orders have not been effective in convincing Chicago Management to enforce the prohibition against stealing time," the union advocate argued, according to the December 2020 decision. The arbitrator said she didn't have the authority to mandate monetary penalties, and instead required post office leaders to meet with supervisors and tell them to stop. She also told the Postal Service to let the union do periodic time card reviews.
Fredric Rolando, president of the National Association of Letter Carriers, declined to comment on individual cases and said the union addresses time card fraud through the grievance-arbitration system and in the courts.
"Meanwhile, we are constantly monitoring these situations to make sure USPS complies with arbitration decisions and grievance settlements," he said in a statement to Public Integrity.
In a September 2019 newsletter, Rolando lamented that one of the biggest problems facing the Postal Service is "a toxic workplace culture that tolerates abuse and wage/time theft."
One rural mail carrier in North Carolina compared the Postal Service to a "bank robber."
"It just seems like the post office is above the law," said the employee, who asked that he not be identified out of fear of retaliation from his supervisors. "They pretty much do anything they want."
The Postal Service knows it has a problem
Postal Service leaders are well aware that many supervisors have been caught cheating employees. The agency's inspector general -- its independent watchdog -- has audited time records at dozens of post offices over the years.
In a 2009 letter to Rep. Paul Hodes, the inspector general's office confirmed complaints that supervisors at three New Hampshire post offices were changing time cards, underpaying employees by nearly $30,000. A year later, the office found more than 160 suspicious changes during a year-long audit of three post offices in Ohio, North Carolina and New Hampshire. At least 75 of the changes were not properly documented. Auditors said the Postal Service did not have adequate systems in place to make sure supervisors aren't shorting employees.
"As a result, we could not determine with certainty the reasons supervisors altered time and attendance records," the lead auditor wrote.
The agency watchdog recommended that the Postal Service train all supervisors periodically, create another layer of approval for each time card change and do its own periodic audits.
Dean Granholm, then the Postal Service's head of delivery and operations, agreed to follow the recommendations.
But the wage theft didn't stop. In 2018, the inspector general alerted postal leaders that more than 100 supervisors in the Boston area had changed time records, deleting hundreds of work hours from 814 postal employees over a period of two years. The auditors reviewed a sampling of 199 changes and found that the majority of them were improperly documented.
Granholm no longer works for the agency and did not respond to a request for comment.
Finally the inspector general looked at the problem on a national level. During a six-month period in 2019, auditors discovered that managers had deleted more than 46,000 work hours from employees across the country. Investigators then examined records at seven post offices in Illinois, Florida and the Washington, D.C., region, finding that 86% of time card changes shorted employees' pay without proper documentation.
The inspector general made similar recommendations to those from previous audits: talk to supervisors about the time card rules and establish a process to periodically review such changes. The Postal Service agreed to do it.
Mail carriers who spoke to Public Integrity say they believe supervisors keep docking their hours because managers' annual pay raises depend on keeping overtime spending down. Union stewards and lawyers made the same claims in legal records. The Postal Service would not say whether it does in fact link pay raises to overtime spending.
Mail carriers say the wage theft will continue unless the Postal Service punishes managers doing it.
In the meantime, some carriers take pictures of their time sheets or write down their hours in a notebook. One of the unions developed a mobile app to help with that.
Campos refuses to quit her job, despite it all.
"I've invested so much. I don't want to leave," she said. "I am 59 years old. Who do you think is going to hire me?"