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A U.S. Postal Service garage that repairs mail trucks in Charleston, Beckley and other parts of southern and central West Virginia has been chronically behind on maintenance.

Garage employees have reported vehicles with worn brakes and steering equipment on the verge of failure.

At one point, a Postal Service official said there had been no crashes to suggest the vehicles are unsafe. The mechanics’ union said the agency shouldn’t wait for that to happen before fixing the problem.

The union has filed grievances. A local Postal Service official dismissed one last year that alleged someone inserted fake brake pad thickness measurements for a vehicle. Worn pads have less stopping power.

Charleston Postal Service Vehicle Maintenance Facility Manager Bob Scott declined to speak with the Charleston Gazette-Mail. According to interview notes in grievance records, he admitted the vehicle wasn’t inspected but said he didn’t know who inserted that data.

Scott also said he didn’t know who checked a box saying the vehicle was inspected for fire prevention. Media have reported a national trend of mail trucks catching fire.

Documents the Postal Service provided in response to open records requests show the Charleston Vehicle Maintenance Facility had a backlog of 156 late preventive maintenance inspections as of the end of last year. Located on Donnally Street, that facility services vehicles in about 15 counties, including Kanawha, Putnam and Pocahontas.

Workers have alleged serious safety issues in reports to management.

“Right lower ball joint, and left upper ball joint. Completely worn out,” employee Anthony Burchett wrote in a March 25, 2021, report on a vehicle assigned to Elkview.

Because of the backlog, he wrote, the inspection of the vehicle inspection was started “three months past due.”

“Front [brake] pads worn out to the metal,” an employee, whose name was blacked out in the records, wrote the next month.

The last preventive maintenance inspection on that vehicle, the worker wrote, had been performed about a year earlier. The inspections are supposed to be conducted every six months, with shorter intervals for vehicles that rack up mileage faster, according to the grievance documents.

Unsafe work conditions

The backlog record might not show the full problem.

The American Postal Workers Union, which represents the mechanics, alleged managers have closed out work orders for scheduled inspections without those checks actually happening — not by inputting fake data as in the one alleged case, but by closing work orders with no data entered whatsoever.

The Postal Service’s local district admitted to “zeroing out” work orders. Labor relations specialist Katrina Jernell, who denied a 2020 grievance, said this was done to address duplicate work orders.

“Inasmuch as zeroing out a work order would eliminate that order’s scheduled PMI [preventive maintenance inspection], the PMI would naturally be delayed until the date on the second work order,” she wrote. “The PMI may not have been completed when it should have, and the delay would have either been a little or a lot, but none of this equates [to] a false entry of information.”

“Combining work orders is not falsification, nor is it unethical to do so,” she wrote. “Does it create a delayed PMI? Absolutely, which is why the local manager is doing everything he can, at the expense of overtime and Sunday premiums [extra pay], to bring the PMI schedule into something more compliant with the [postal service handbook] PO 701’s requirements.”

The union wrote that “the manager and the supervisor are the only ones who can close the work orders. They intentionally do it every day to reduce their number of delinquent PMIs.”

In last year’s grievance, the union wrote that Vehicle Maintenance Facility employees “were reporting an unsafe work condition due to lack of maintenance of a vehicle for over a year. Some with no PMI since 2019! Are WV residents allowed to go without an inspection for over a year?”

State Police Lt. Chris Zerkle, who oversees West Virginia’s vehicle inspection program, said state-registered vehicles must be annually inspected. But the federal government’s mail trucks don’t have state tags and therefore aren’t subject to that requirement.

The union wrote that one vehicle traveled “19,004 miles without a PMI, brake INSP(ection) or oil change,” adding, “this is totally unsafe and irresponsible.”

Workers can file grievances against management. If local officials deny those grievances, employees can appeal them up the chain. The union appealed last year’s denial to Postal Service Labor Relations Appeals in Florida, but it’s unclear where that appeal now stands.

The local union branch didn’t comment on this specific case. Postal Service spokeswoman Susan W. Wright provided brief emailed responses.

“We do not comment on personnel matters,” she wrote.

“At USPS, our focus on the safety of our employees and customers is a top priority,” she wrote.

Declining to investigate

Last year, the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration declined to investigate allegations it received claiming “the employer is falsifying vehicle maintenance inspections” and “vehicles are unsafe to operate from worn out brakes, loose and rusted steering joints and broken and loose motor mounts.” Postal Service records do not indicate who lodged the complaint.

OSHA’s Charleston area director, Prentice Cline, asked the Vehicle Maintenance Facility to investigate itself. Scott, the manager, wrote that “our investigation” gave “no indication that vehicles were being operated with unsafe equipment.”

He told OSHA the Vehicle Maintenance Facility implemented a program “to ensure we are current on PMI’s.”

The inspection backlog began decreasing. But by November, the backlog again was growing.

In a May 2021 email, a local Postal Service labor relations manager, whose name was blacked out in the records, wrote that he or she had reported to the Postal Service Office of Inspector General the claim that records had been falsified.

The local official wrote that it was “outside of the scope” of human resources staff “to investigate allegations of this magnitude.”

Someone left a voicemail at the Office of Inspector General, which is supposed to help hold the Postal Service accountable. A rough transcription of that voicemail, retrieved through another open records request, said “the union presented me with a few articles that appeared to confirm it [the falsification of records], but any type of investigation at VMF [Vehicle Maintenance Facility] is outside of our scope and labor.”

The Office of Inspector General declined to investigate. Someone there, whose name was also redacted, gave a one-paragraph justification, saying it was a management matter.

Safety issues fall under OSHA’s watch, Bill Triplett, an inspector general spokesman, told the Gazette-Mail in an email.

If OSHA finds “fraudulent or criminal activity,” Triplett said, that should be referred to the Office of Inspector General.

OSHA didn’t respond to the Gazette-Mail’s requests for comment.

In a 2015 report, the Office of Inspector General concluded that late preventive maintenance inspections were a national issue. The agency’s analysis found that in the quarter ending Dec. 31, 2014, 43,548 vehicles, 21% of the Postal Service’s fleet, were late for scheduled maintenance, the report said.

The share of vehicles serviced by Charleston’s garage currently behind on scheduled maintenance is unclear. Some of the backlog of 156 delinquent inspections past due at the end of last year could have included vehicles with multiple past-due inspections.

Michael Foster, the union’s national Motor Vehicle Service Division director, said he doesn’t know whether there’s currently a national backlog.

Not the ‘proper’ form

No crashes and no breakdowns mean there’s no proof vehicles are unsafe, according to a Postal Service labor relations specialist.

“Despite the dramatic charges, no evidence was provided to show that management falsified or covered up anything,” wrote Jernell, the specialist who denied the 2020 union grievance.

“No evidence was provided to show that employee safety or vehicle safety are in any genuine danger. No other grievances, no Labor/Management meetings, no 1767s ... nothing,” she wrote.

“Union’s assertion that the vehicles are unsafe to drive is a drastic leap and requires much more investigation to bear out,” Jernell wrote. “As yet, the evidence doesn’t substantiate the charge. If the union’s allegations were true, there’d be wrecks, complaints, and breakdowns in the year since the last grievance to point to as a result of vehicles that are truly ‘unsafe’ to drive.”

The union responded that “management wants an accident as proof [of] the VMF’s ongoing issues.”

The “1767s” to which Jernell referred are Postal Service Form 1767, “Report of Hazard, Unsafe Condition or Practice.”

Employees later turned in these forms, but management then said those weren’t the right forms.

Some names on the forms weren’t blacked out. Some were redacted in response to earlier records requests but revealed when the Gazette-Mail appealed the redactions.

“Veh: 5210809 This vehicle has not been serviced since Aug. 19 — 2019!” James Minney wrote on a 1767 form in April 2021. “It should’ve been serviced within 6 months.”

This was the two-sentence written response from Scott, the manager, seven days later:

“No specific deficiencies have been identified. The proper way to report vehicle deficiencies is to fill out form PS4565.” That form is for reporting vehicle damage, defects and failures.

More Form 1767 reports came in.

“Truck 0236704 was called in 4-12-21 carrier stated they hear metal to metal when braking,” wrote an employee whose name was redacted. “Upon inspection 4-21-21 front pads worn to metal damages rotors. Rear pads degraded rotors. Vehicle is 5 months past due.”

“Not the proper way to report a vehicle deficiency,” Scott replied. “Form PS Form 4565 is the proper way. The vehicle is in the VMF being addressed.”

“On April 8 2021 I filed a 1767 on 12 vehicles that are passed [sic] their inspection (PMI) dates, some up to 16 months,” Minney wrote on another Form 1767, on April 22, 2021. “These 1767[s] were not acted on.”

He wrote that on one vehicle, “two dangerous safety items were found. Right upper ball jount [sic] and left eng[ine] mount. Management is not taking the 1767 seriously, I would like the phone number to headquarters safety office.”

In May 2021, a worker whose name was redacted wrote about another vehicle: “Upper ball joint worn out. Both lower ball joints worn out. Tie rod ends worn out. Ready to break. Idler arm worn out. Center link worn out. Front pads worn out to the metal. Last PMI started 4-21-20.”

“It has nothing to do with a 4565,” that worker wrote.

Later that same month, Minney wrote that an outer tie rod on a vehicle was loose. When a driver steers a vehicle in a turn, the outer tie rod is what ultimately turns the wheel.

Minney wrote there were dangerous vehicles on the road.

“When will this stop?” he wrote.

This time, Scott didn’t tell him to fill out a different form.

“Working on getting all late PMI’s in by using hot list,” Scott wrote. “I’m printing and giving to lead tech. Also doing the inspection on parking lots.”

But the next month, Tara McKown, another labor relations specialist, denied another union grievance.

“Preventative maintenance inspections are indeed behind; however, there is nothing sinister about this fact,” wrote McKown, now the Winfield postmaster. “The union’s contention that the vehicles are unsafe to drive because their PMI is behind would require much more investigation to prove.”

Short-staffed

It wasn’t always this way.

Before October 2018, when the preventive maintenance inspection backlog began growing, the Vehicle Maintenance Facility was late on one to 24 inspections in any given month.

By December 2021, the backlog had grown more than sixfold.

In denying the 2020 grievance, Jernell wrote some of the backlog “can be attributed to short staffing, true, but the short staffing is due in large part to the attendance issues surrounding COVID-19. Otherwise, staffing would be sufficient.”

The records show the number of delinquent preventive maintenance inspections had grown to 215 by December 2019, months before the first reported COVID-19 case in West Virginia. In January 2018, the backlog was six.

That year, the Postal Service cut one of the roughly 10 positions at the Vehicle Maintenance Facility. The union filed a grievance over that move.

“No evidence was provided to show that the fleet can’t be maintained properly,” Jernell wrote in September 2018, denying that grievance.

The backlog began swelling the next month.

In May 2020, when Jernell denied the grievance alleging unsafe conditions and maintenance record fraud, she stated, “the delay in PMIs is being addressed. Attendance deficiencies and COVID leave will correct themselves over time.”

She wrote that workers had been allowed to get extra pay to inspect vehicles during off-hours.

“Those in need of immediate repair are tagged and brought in,” Jernell wrote.

“The manager estimates that if this practice continues, the PMIs and any necessary repairs can all be brought up to date within eight months to a year,” she stated.

At the end of last year, the backlog persisted.

The Gazette-Mail requested more recent backlog numbers from Wright, the Postal Service spokeswoman. She declined.

Jernell answered a call from the Gazette-Mail. She noted the May 2020 grievance denial was two years ago. She said she couldn’t recall the details.

“I deal with hundreds of grievances,” she said.

Eventually, she hung up the phone.

Ryan Quinn covers education. He can be reached at 304-348-1254 or ryan.quinn@hdmediallc.com. Follow @RyanEQuinn on Twitter.

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