AWOL surged at the Postal Service in 2020 due to the pandemic—and the use of a new liberal leave policy that sometimes was recorded as AWOL—hampering postal operations and raising questions about inconsistent disciplinary actions in response, an inspector general report has said.
It said that in September 2020 there were nearly 400,000 hours recorded as AWOL compared with fewer than 150,000 the year before and that by December of 2020 the number reached nearly 500,000.
The report said there is a “strong, negative correlation between AWOL hours and service performance, meaning that as AWOL hours increased, service performance decreased.”
It said that early in 2020 USPS liberalized some leave policies in which employees who were absent without prior leave approval are to notify their supervisor as soon as they realize that they could not report for duty, and after their return are to state the reason for their absence on a form. However, the audit found that the guidance to management “was conflicting and led to inconsistent interpretation” with employees in some cases immediately marked as AWOL, before they could state a reason for being absent.
“AWOL is an administrative matter and, if time is not allotted for employees to provide documentation or respond before being charged as AWOL, management may be unable to support their disciplinary decisions due to procedural errors if discipline is grieved. This could prevent discipline from being successfully issued or even lessen the requested discipline,” the report said.
“Conversely, not coding absences appropriately as AWOL and leaving those absences as LWOP in the system prevents management from providing additional oversight or addressing those instances at all,” it said.
The report similarly said that the USPS lacks standard guidance for discipline specific to AWOL and without it, “there is no way to determine if the nature of discipline is corrective or punitive and if the level of discipline is consistently issued for similar AWOL offenses.” Further, where offices had developed their own disciplinary guidance for AWOL employees, “supervisors did not always follow the guidance,” it said.
Management generally agreed with recommendations regarding improving record-keeping and said it would review its guidance on progressive discipline to make sure it is consistent across the agency.