Marjorie Bolger isn't the sort who calls her busy husband at his government office to ask him to pick up a loaf of bread on the way home.
But she did call earlier this week.She had extra good news. The mail had arrived, she said, and it included long-awaited income tax data -- namely Bolger's W-2 form from his place of employment.
Bill Bolger was doubly delighted. He works at the USPS (U.S. Postal Service). It has been having payroll and paycheck problems for months. There was some doubt that W-2 forms would reach its 650,000 employes before yesterday's legal deadline. Bolger was especially anxious as a taxpayer, as a postal employe and as the postmaster general of the United States.
Beginning early last year the USPS had more than its share of problems: Fires, floods and weather-related delivery problems; a wildcat strike by some workers and conversion to a new payroll system that sometimes didn't issue biweekly checks to employes. As a result many have been paid 70-cents-on-the-dollar with money orders, and some have waited weeks or months for premium pay, or promotion money to catch up.
Officials say much of the problem results from a new law that in effect doubled the paperwork of the USPS, requiring it to process more than 1.2 million pieces of payroll-related paper every two weeks. Bolger himself was short-checked one time (and apparently one time only).
Other workers here and in the field sometimes didn't get checks. They were given "advances" in the form of money orders equal to 70 percent of their estimated gross pay. It made payday something like Russian roulette.
Because of the payroll problems, some workers say they didn't know how much money they had made, how much tax was withheld or what, if anything, was due them. The fact that the W-2 forms were mailed out in time should solve most of those problems.
Postal unions charged the USPS was heartlessly downplaying the paycheck problems. A couple of weeks back the biggest group, the American Postal Workers Union, demanded that Bolger resign. It took out full-page ads in Washington newspapers explaining its position, and reminding Bolger he had (in their opinion) to go.
Yesterday the USPS called in a group of reporters to explain the situation as it sees it. Several union officials got the word and, although uninvited, came to the meeting.
After outlining some of the reasons for the payroll problems, Jim Finch, who has been given the job of eliminating them, said things are getting better every day. And he said they never were as black as the unions painted them.
Finch said the USPS's regular biweekly payroll is $446 million and that only $3 million of that currently is being paid out in the form of "advances" to workers who have not received a check. Figuring the average postal worker's salary at $17,000, Finch said, that works out to 4,594 employes who got cash advances rather than checks, last week. That is less than 1 percent of the work force and while it is too much, Finch said, it isn't the 50 percent error rate some critics have claimed.
James LaPenta of the Mail Handlers Union and APWU President Emmet Andrews looked, at times, as if they wanted to chip in and buy Finch a new pocket calculator. They didn't buy his low figures. LaPenta said the problem had dragged out too long.Andrews said whatever the numbers, it is a "100 percent disaster" to an employe when there is no paycheck.
Finch said to his knowledge nobody -- except one man who refused to accept a money order "advance" -- had gone unpaid. He said the situation is "better today than it was yesterday, and yesterday was better than the day before." The union leaders said the USPS had not investigated or acted on many "horror stories." Andrews said he was "surprised and delighted" that the W-2s got out on time. Both sides are now waiting to see what the next payday brings -- or does not bring -- workers.