OIG Reports on Cleveland Drop Shipment Unloading Delays

In an audit report released March 10, Excessive Wait Times to Accept Commercial Mail Shipments at the Cleveland Processing & Distribution Center, the Postal Service’s Office of Inspector General examined the circumstances surrounding the challenges encountered by the facility in late 2020.  As the OIG stated at the outset:

“Due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the November 2020 general election, the US Postal Service’s Cleveland Processing and Distribution Center (P&DC) experienced earlier than normal Peak Season mail, including package volume.  This management alert responds to media and mailer concerns indicating that drivers experienced excessive wait times for drop shipments at the Cleveland P&DC.  Our objective was to assess the efficiency of processing drop shipments at the Cleveland P&DC in the Northern Ohio District.”

Findings

The OIG made direct observations of the facility’s condition:

"We observed gridlock conditions at the Cleveland P&DC on December 11, 2020, via Closed-Circuit Television (CCTV) system footage and during our site visits on December 15 and 16, 2020.  Specifically, the plant experienced issues accepting additional mail, including drop shipments, because previously accepted mail had reached the dock doors (see Figure 1).

“Cleveland P&DC capacity issues also made it difficult for employees to move mail handling equipment around the workroom because of the congestion (see Figure 2).

“Delayed mail processing operations along with limited employee availability resulted in facility capacity issues.  We reviewed the Postal Service’s Mail Condition Visualization system and determined the Cleveland P&DC experienced an increase in delayed mail inventory from September 19 through December 25, 2020, compared to the same period last year.

“Specifically, delayed mail inventory increased from 44 million pieces during this period in 2019 to 91 million pieces (106% increase) during the same period in 2020 (see Figure 3).

"Furthermore, from October through December 2020, employee availability ranged from 73% to 80% (compared to 79% to 85% during the same time the previous year), with “Other” being the most significant category of leave taken. ... In addition, Cleveland P&DC management was only able to hire 127 of the planned 259 (49%) seasonal mail handler assistants during this time period.

“The Postal Service took mitigating actions to help alleviate the strained operating conditions; however, Cleveland P&DC management did not seek approval for a redirect from Postal Service Headquarters timely because local management was unaware of when to request a redirect.  Specifically, even though the Cleveland P&DC was showing almost double the amount of delayed mail inventory compared to the previous year as early as October 2020, Postal Service local management did not request a redirect from Postal Service Headquarters until December 8, 2020.

“Once the request was received, Postal Service Headquarters announced a temporary redirect of drop shipments involving only letter mail through an Industry Alert on December 9, 2020.  While the Cleveland P&DC would continue to accept catalogs, parcels, and flats, the redirect instructed mailers who normally drop letter mail at the Cleveland P&DC to drop it off at the Pittsburgh P&DC.  The temporary redirect was scheduled to end December 15, 2020, but on December 11, 2020, Postal Service management decided to extend it through December 26, 2020.

“In addition, once the redirect was announced, the Cleveland P&DC FAST coordinator entered the wrong effective date in FAST. Instead of entering December 9, 2020, the FAST coordinator mistakenly entered December 14, 2020 – a five-day difference.  We reviewed the FAST system and determined that although the number of appointments decreased during the redirect, mailers continued to make dropship appointments and facility management continued to accept the mail (see Figure 5).

“In the instance where drop shippers transported mail other than letters, those trucks could still be accepted into the Cleveland P&DC and all mail on the truck would be accepted and processed into the facility.  Therefore, the redirect did not eliminate all drop shipment appointments or the acceptance of mail but did reduce them.

These conditions resulted in the significant back-up of drop shipments by commercial mailers and put the Postal Service’s brand, reputation, and customer loyalty at risk.  We plan to conduct future nationwide audit work in this area.”

Surface (In)Visibility

The OIG also found deficiencies in Surface Visibility:

"Surface Visibility data did not reflect the reported drop shipment delay conditions.  We reviewed Surface Visibility data and found no indications of transportation delays at the Cleveland P&DC and could not substantiate media and mailer concerns indicating that drivers experienced excessive wait times at the P&DC.  However, the Postal Service’s CCTV systems reflected transportation delays (see Figure 6).

“Surface Visibility data, site observations, and interviews with plant personnel revealed that due to facility conditions, Cleveland P&DC expeditors did not follow policy to properly record truck arrival times for drop shipments.  Specifically, the expeditor recorded unload time as arrival time at the dock door.  However, according to Postal Service policy, truck arrival times are the times trucks enter the P&DC yard and truck unload times depend on the drop shipment appointment:

  • If a truck arrives on time for the appointment, the recorded unload time should be the scheduled appointment time or when the truck is docked, whichever is first.
  • If the truck is early for the appointment, the recorded unload time should be the scheduled appointment time or when the truck is unloaded, whichever is first.
  • If the truck is late for the appointment, the recorded unload time should be when the truck is unloaded.

“As a result, data in Surface Visibility did not reflect actual arrival times and Postal Service management was unable to determine the true operating conditions at the Cleveland P&DC.  For example, on December 11, 2020, Surface Visibility data reported trucks arrived at the facility and were assigned a dock within two minutes for all seven accepted drop shipments.  The Surface Visibility data did not match media and mailer concerns of extensive driver wait times or the trucks waiting outside of the facility shown from the CCTV footage in Figure 6.  This discrepancy highlights the fact that the Postal Service could be at risk of making decisions based on inaccurate data.”

Recommendations

The OIG offered three recommendations:

  • “...develop, document, and implement timely mitigation plans when processing indicators identify the facilities processing capabilities are being compromised;
  • “...implement internal control checks ensuring employees accurately report effective start and end dates of mitigation techniques in the Facility Access and Shipment Tracking system and reinforce compliance through written communication; and
  • “...reinforce through formal communication and refresher training the recording of drop shipment data in the Surface Visibility system in accordance with Postal Service policy.”

The OIG reported that USPS management agreed with the first and third recommendations, but not the second:

“Regarding recommendation 2, management disagreed and stated that a series of unique events culminated in the delay of the redirect entry in the FAST system.  Management also stated that the redirect was not initially input into FAST due to its short duration of less than one week; however, once the redirect was extended, the information was entered into FAST.  Further, redirects take one business day to process in FAST, but an error was identified in the FAST system resulting in the delay of processing the Cleveland P&DC entry by an additional day.

“Management also disagreed that the Cleveland P&DC experienced gridlock conditions in October and expressed that it experienced delayed volume due to the unprecedented increase in package volume the COVID-19 pandemic and the holiday shipping season caused. ...”

In response, the OIG stated:

“Regarding management’s comments about the Cleveland P&DC experiencing gridlock conditions as early as October 2020, the OIG based this conclusion on site visit observations and data similarities in Surface Visibility during that timeframe.  However, we understand management’s concern and modified the language in the final report. ...

“Regarding recommendation 2, although management explained the unique events impacting the redirect start date entered into FAST, without updating FAST or taking an alternative effective action, the Postal Service would be unable to effectively communicate with mailers about redirects, placing redirects at risk of being ineffective.  Further, we could not locate Postal Service policy stating that redirects of less than a week are not entered into FAST.  We view the disagreement on recommendation 2 as unresolved and will work with management through the audit resolution process.”

Take-aways

The OIG’s findings also suggested systemic issues, not explicitly detailed in the report, that could apply beyond Cleveland:

  • Facility staffing was impacted by not only the pandemic but by shortages of holiday hires compared to planned levels;
  • Many USPS processing facilities were not designed with the dock and floor space needed to enable organized staging and processing of high volumes of both mail and packages;
  • Facility managers are reluctant to reveal when their operations are being overtaxed and in need of emergency relief;
  • Facility staffs are not consistently trained in, or act in compliance with, established operating procedures, or the procedures for accessing or using information in USPS data systems such as FAST;
  • The accuracy of information in USPS data systems (like Surface Visibility) is accepted by senior managers and Headquarters functions without validation through independent sources; and
  • Over at least the holiday period, reports from logistics providers and commercial mailers were more accurate in describing facility conditions than was the information being provided by the Postal Service’s own internal condition reporting systems.

How effectively the USPS implements corrective measures to prevent recurrence of what happened in Cleveland – and elsewhere – in late 2020 remains to be seen.

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