Faced with high turnover and frequent vacancies in the top job at the Aspen post office, the U.S Postal Service has paid temporary managers here more than $122,000 in per diem benefits and reimbursements for rent, hotel rooms, airfare, cash advance fees and the use of private vehicles since 2003.
That money served as partial compensation for a total of about 2.5 years of work by three separate managers, who ran the Aspen post office on and off in the last decade when a permanent postmaster wasn’t in place. The managers, known as “Officers in Charge,” (OICs) also drew a base salary of anywhere between $53,305 and $89,899, depending on their experience.
The U.S. Postal Service (USPS) has long made these payments to OICs, but they have continued in the last decade even as the agency has been struggling nationally with financial losses spurred by declines in mail volume and a crushing mandate to “pre-fund” employee health care benefits.
Since 2003, the postal service has paid OICs in Aspen more than $45,000 in per diem payments and reimbursed them for more than $25,000 in hotel bills, nearly $31,000 in rent payments and almost $18,000 in mileage reimbursement for the use of privately owned vehicles.
Those figures come from internal USPS expense reports released through a Freedom of Information Act request, and they reveal a hidden price associated with Aspen’s high cost of living, particularly for postal service employees whose wages don’t reflect the fact that they work in pricey resort towns.
“It is true that we have had a lack of permanence in the postmaster position due to the housing expense and unique nature of Aspen,” wrote Denver-based USPS spokesman David Rupert, in an email.
Hiring temporary managers, he wrote, is a necessary cost if the postal service wants to keep serving Aspen.
“We are not allowed locality pay or any special compensation for the [postmaster] position, so it is up to the individual to bear any personal expense that the area brings,” Rupert wrote.
In practice, however, it appears that the postal service itself has recently borne much of the expense associated with hosting some temporary managers in the Aspen area.
High cost, fewer perks, high turnover
In the last 25 years, only three postmasters have kept their job at the Aspen office for more than two years, according to postal service records. Aspen has been without a postmaster since January. Eric Seiler, a Michigan-based OIC who had been set to take the job, recently declined the post for what he called personal — though not financial — reasons.
Reza Tehrani, a longtime supervisor at the Aspen post office who has worked there for more than 10 years, is currently the OIC in Aspen. Aside from his salary — which has been increased by 5 percent — he’s not receiving any reimbursements or per diem payments, because he lives locally and is not in “travel status,” Rupert said.
Tehrani lives in a home here and has kids in the local school system. Asked whether he planned to apply to become Aspen’s next postmaster, Tehrani said he hadn’t yet made up his mind.
“It’s a big job, and I don’t know if I want that responsibility at this moment,” he said. “But the job has not been posted yet.”
Many veteran employees at the local post office blame Aspen’s high cost of living and scarce affordable housing for the high turnover of postmasters there.
“If there was more affordable housing, we might be able to keep them longer,” said Herb Thom, an Aspen letter carrier and the local representative of the National Letter Carriers Union. “Knowing what I know about living here in Aspen, cost of living is always a factor.”
Postmasters don’t receive the same assistance with rent, travel, or other living expenses that OICs do, according to Rupert. In fact, their compensation is based on a mix of experience and the size of the office they run, including its revenues, mail volume and the number of employees.
That formula penalizes postmasters in places like Aspen, where the cost of living is high but post offices are small and mail volumes are low.
Accordingly, postal service records show that OICs have been far more common in the Aspen post office than postmasters have in recent years, although the temporary managers haven’t lasted as long on average.
Since 1988, the Aspen office has seen 24 OICs, compared to just eight postmasters. Postmasters have filled Aspen’s top spot for roughly 15 of the last 25 years, but the job has frequently been vacant nonetheless.
At times, Aspen’s reliance on OICs has resulted in sky-high bills for incidentals like travel and hotel room stays. Joseph Jemello, who served as Aspen’s OIC for about 18 months starting in 2009 and then served a short stint as postmaster, drove to Aspen from Edwards roughly once every week or two during that time, racking up almost $12,500 in reimbursements for the use of his private car. Jemello, who has since retired, also charged the postal service for more than $16,000 in hotels and more than $1,000 in a line item mysteriously dubbed “cash advance fees.”
In his e-mail, Rupert defended those expenditures, along with other recent payments to Aspen OICs.
“We have been [in Aspen] since the 1880s, and we want to give Aspen the same level of service that the rest of the country gets,” he wrote. “Sometimes we have to work hard to get people to staff all of the jobs there, but that’s part of our universal commitment.”
The postal service pays and reimburses its temporary managers based on standards set by the General Services Administration (GSA), an agency that regulates travel for federal employees.
In Aspen, the lodging reimbursement rates offered by the GSA vary seasonally, ranging from a low of $122 per night from September through November, up to $247 for December through March. The GSA has a pre-approved list of Aspen hotels where employees can stay, but Rocky Mountain GSA spokeswoman Sally Mayberry wasn’t able to provide that list by press time.
Still, Mayberry said government employees could stay in any Aspen hotel that meets the “Hotel and Motel Fire Safety Act of 1990” and other federal regulations, as long as they pay the portion of their bill that their per diem doesn’t cover. There are 16 Aspen hotels — including the Hotel Jerome, the Gant and the Limelight Hotel, among others — that meet those federal regulations.
The postal service also pays its temporary managers a daily per diem of $71, in accordance with GSA regulations. That money can be used for everything from meal expenses to dry cleaning and ATM fees. In addition, the agency reimburses their employees for travel in their private vehicles at a rate of $0.56 per mile.
Management turbulence has other impacts
Aside from the financial cost of hosting so many temporary managers, some employees at the Aspen post office said that the frequent swapping out of top brass also can impact morale.
“When you have an officer in charge here, he’s not his own person, and if he doesn’t do exactly what [management] want him to do, he’s pulled out,” said Hank Gray, a clerk at the Aspen office and the local representative for the American Postal Workers Union.
Gray explained that OICs are more vulnerable to the whims of upper management and can be removed more easily than a permanent postmaster.
“They can’t just pull a postmaster out because he’s not taking advice from up above,” he said.
Gray said it often takes time for new managers to adapt to Aspen’s casual vibe and strong union presence, and with the high turnover rate, many of them never have a chance to do so.
The process of getting a more permanent postmaster into place would likely be eased if they could earn a so-called “Cost of Living Increase,” or COLA, to make up for Aspen’s high cost of living.
Yet Gray said he once tried to achieve a similar wage increase for postal clerks in Aspen and was told that such raises can only happen across an entire geographic territory of the postal service. Since Aspen’s territory also includes the rest of Colorado and the state of Wyoming, including many low-income areas, achieving a COLA is unlikely.
“It has to be a whole territory to qualify for COLA,” Gray said. “Aspen is expensive, but you can go downvalley and it’s cheaper.”
In fact, commuting is the way that many Aspen postmasters have managed to stick with the job in the past, Gray said. Some have lived in Glenwood Springs, while others have lived as far away as New Castle or even Silt.