U.S. Postal Service:

The Program for Reassessing Work Provided to Injured Employees Is Under Way, but Actions Are Needed to Improve Program Management

GAO-10-78: Published: Dec 14, 2009. Publicly Released: Dec 14, 2009.

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Between 50,000 and 60,000 United States Postal Service (Service) employees, or 7 to 8 percent of the Service's workforce, occupied a modified work assignment during fiscal year 2008. The Service must provide these assignments to employees with workplace injuries if work is available to perform within their medical restrictions. Historically, the Service has returned employees to work as soon as possible, partly to reduce its costs for workers' compensation. In 2006, the Service initiated a program, the National Reassessment Process (NRP), to ensure that modified work assignments are medically suitable and necessary to carry out the Service's mission. This requested report addresses (1) the goal of the program, (2) how it is being implemented, and (3) the program's status and outcomes. To perform its work, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) analyzed data and documentation, visited four districts selected to illustrate a range of conditions, and interviewed Service officials.

The goal of the National Reassessment Process is to ensure that all employees in modified work assignments are performing work that is both suitable to their medical restrictions and necessary to the Service's mission. Among other things, the program aims to eliminate what Service officials call "make-work" assignments which, over time, occurred when factors such as increasing automation and declining mail volumes reduced the amount of manual, sedentary, and useful work available for these employees to perform. The number of employees reassessed under the program is not readily available nationwide because the Service does not aggregate district data. However, on September 30, 2008, there were 31,044 employees in modified work assignments, all of whom may have been reassessed under the program. The program is being implemented in three phases in the Service's 74 districts. In Phase 1, the Service ensures that all employee medical records are current, and categorizes the employees based on their medical status. In Phases 2 and 3, the Service attempts to find each employee medically suitable and necessary work. If successful, the Service provides these employees with modified work assignments. However, when suitable work is not available, employees become eligible for wage loss compensation (workers' compensation). Specifically, because employees in Phase 2 have reached their maximum medical improvement, they are not expected to return to work for the Service and, thus, may receive workers' compensation indefinitely, whereas Phase 3 employees are eligible for workers' compensation for only the number of hours they cannot work for the Service. Initially, the Service implemented each phase of the program sequentially; however, in July 2009, it began allowing some districts to conduct Phases 2 and 3 concurrently to expedite the program's completion. The Service has not established milestones for completing the program, but, according to Service officials, they expect the program to be fully implemented by September 30, 2010. After 3 years, none of the Service's districts had completely implemented the program, and implementation in most is far from complete. Available data on employee outcomes are limited and preliminary because implementation is ongoing, and the Service does not track employees who receive medically suitable and necessary work--the goal of the program. The Service achieves program cost savings when, for example, employees return to full duty, retire, resign, or perform modified work assignments. However, when suitable work is not available, some employee outcomes could increase the Service's short- and long-term costs for workers' compensation. For the year ending June 30, 2009, workers' compensation costs totaled about $1.1 billion and, in 2008, the Service estimated that its future liability for these costs totaled about $8 billion. The Service reported to the Congress that the program saved $146 million in fiscal year 2008. However, the Service did not disclose that these reported savings reflect neither the Service's total gross savings nor its net savings, nor any other limitations in its cost estimation methodology.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In 2009, we reported that after 3 years none of U.S. Postal Service's (USPS) 74 districts had completely implemented the National Reassessment Process (NRP), and implementation in most districts was far from complete. USPS initiated the NPR without clear management support for ensuring timely implementation. USPS did not set specific time frames for completing the program and it has taken longer than senior headquarters officials expected. We concluded that although USPS officials estimate that the NRP will be completed by September 30, 2010, without milestones for its completion, it is uncertain when the NRP will be completed. Therefore, we recommended that USPS establish milestones for completing the program. In response, USPS established a deadline of December 31, 2010 for all districts to complete the NRP. According to the senior manager responsible for the implementation of the NRP, all the districts met the completion deadline. As a result, USPS demonstrated management support for the NRP and ensured that it was completed successfully and in a timely manner.

    Recommendation: To enhance the NRP's implementation, the Postmaster General should articulate senior management's commitment to the NRP by setting program milestones, including a timeline for all districts to complete the NRP to improve program management and enhance accountability and transparency.

    Agency Affected: United States Postal Service

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: We found that data on National Reassessment Process (NRP) employee outcomes are limited and preliminary because, in part, the Service does not track the number of employees who are in modified work assignments that are medically suitable and necessary to carry out the mission of the Postal Service, which is the goal of the NRP. The Service indicated that it planned to deploy a new national claims management program in February 2010 that will enhance its ability to track and measure NRP progress. However, the Service did not indicate that it planned to use the new program to track and measure NRP employee outcomes. Therefore, we recommended that, when deployed, the Service should use its new claims management program to track and measure whether the goal of the NRP was being met, including tracking the number of employees placed in necessary and medically suitable modified work assignments. In 2009 USPS deployed its new process that, among other things, tracks and measures NRP employee outcomes. As a result, the Service has the data to accurately measure and report on employee outcomes and report on NRP's success to Congress and other stakeholders.

    Recommendation: To enhance the NRP's implementation, the Postmaster General should, when deployed, use the Service's new claims management process to track and measure whether the NRP's goals are being met, including tracking the number of employees placed in necessary and medically suitable modified work assignments to improve program management and enhance accountability and transparency.

    Agency Affected: United States Postal Service

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: We found that although the Service reported to Congress that the National Reassessment Process (NRP) saved $146 million in fiscal year 2008, the Service did not disclose that these reported savings reflected neither the Service's total gross savings nor its net savings, nor any other limitations in its cost estimation methodology. Therefore, we recommended that the Service fully disclose any limitations that apply to NRP-related cost savings reported to the Congress and others. In response, the Service in its 2010 Comprehensive Statement on Postal Operations to the Congress disclosed that the Service's estimate of NRP-related cost savings through June 2010 represented only the savings associated with certain employee outcomes, specifically, savings from employees who resigned, retired, or returned to full duty. As a result, Congress and other postal stakeholders are now aware of the limitations associated with these cost savings estimates and can use them appropriately.

    Recommendation: To enhance the NRP's implementation, the Postmaster General should fully disclose any limitations that apply to NRP-related cost savings reported to the Congress and others to improve program management and enhance accountability and transparency.

    Agency Affected: United States Postal Service

 

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