Dog lover and outdoorsman, John Marshall is a veteran reporter who has worked for The Associated Press and other major news outlets.
Being a Letter Carrier Means Spending Hours in Steaming Truck, Sporadic Hours, and Low Pay
If the idea of spending a hot summer day driving around in a four-wheeled sauna, with only a fan with an irritating metallic buzz to provide a degree of cooling relief, while frequently stopping the slow-moving human roaster to drag, pull and lift heavy objects sounds like fun to you, then there’s a job for you.
And if such activities appeal to you, and you want to add the additional joy of working sporadic hours with no set schedule, then getting paid an unpredictable amount every two weeks—with the only consistency being the paltry pay is about the same, or even less than what many states pay for unemployment benefits—and toss in being held in lower regard than a package, then the United States Postal Service wants you.
Outdoor Work Appealed to Me
After getting laid off from my job as a news writer long after I had grown disenchanted with the news business, my longtime companion suggested I apply to the Post Office.
Well, I love the outdoors, I like physical work, and since I had been cranking out news all day or night for years, I thought I’d look into becoming a letter carrier, or what’s more commonly known as a mailman. Delivering mail, I thought, might be just the job that could be a bridge to retirement.
The Job Is Not for Many
Boy, was I wrong.
Rather, the job was a bridge to nowhere.
Starting at $16.06 an hour, or what could come to $33,404 a year, if a temporary carrier worked 40 hours a week, and that’s a big if, the Post Office hires temporary letter carriers or what they call City Carrier Assistants. In Post Office parlance, and there’s plenty of that, these low-paid, overworked, and disrespected temporary laborers are called CCAs for short.
The Post Office Can't Hire Fast Enough To Replace Those Who Quit
Though the Post Office promises the CCA position offers plenty of overtime and can lead to a full-time letter carrier position, and along with it the corresponding pay increase from the dismal CCA hourly rate to a slightly less dismal rate of about $18 an hour, most CCAs don’t stick around. Now granted, that hourly pay rate goes a lot further in a lot of other areas of the country, but those other areas also have the weather extremes of especially hot summers and bitterly cold winters.
“The Post Office can’t hire enough CCAs to replace the ones that quit, or don’t make it past probation,” the union reported in one of its newsletters.
Indeed, an internal Post Office email shows the turnover rate of CCAs in the San Francisco Bay Area was 57 percent. Post Office management, acknowledging the time and expense to interview and train CCAs, only to have them sometimes quit on the first day, the first week or anytime soon thereafter, can’t seem to figure out why so many CCAs quit.
Supervisor: "Not Worth Pulling Your Hair Out"
But it’s easy to understand why.
Thankless, low paying, hard, unpredictable, and with the Post Office sending its CCAs to work in different offices and on different routes on a daily basis, the CCA position is simply a horrible way to earn what is in many states, especially California, an unlivable wage.
Yes, though becoming a “regular,” as it’s called, has its rewards; more than half the CCAs hired don’t think it’s worth the trial and tribulations to get there.
That would include me. As well as the majority of new hires who have quit on the spot, some resigned on their first day or simply never showed up for work again.
Read More From Toughnickel
“The CCA position is a job for idiots,” wrote a person identifying himself as “CCA til I go smart” in a Topix.com posting. “You’re given a huge workload and not enough time to complete it. The supervisors are not too helpful. All they care about is that you get back fast regardless of traffic, etc.
And considering the fact that you have to work seven days a week at times. The pay and stress are simply not worth it. You have limited free time (no set days off), regularly sent to an unfamiliar route (but expected to complete it faster than someone who’s been doing the same route for years. In some cases decades).”
A person identifying himself as Mel Carrier, another writer for ToughNickel, shared similar sentiments:
“Tolerance for miserable postal working conditions seems to be directly proportional to the amount of money earned, and a regular carrier making $27 per hour at a guaranteed 40 hours per week will naturally tolerate more than a CCA making an unsteady $15,” he wrote. “Is it any wonder that the CCAs are abandoning the postal ship in droves?”
A supervisor from one of the several offices I worked in across San Francisco’s East Bay offered more succinct advice:
“The job is not worth pulling your hair out,” he confided.
Constant Pressure for Faster Delivery Times
Besides the low pay, hard work, and erratic hours, being sent to different offices, and being assigned to new and confusing routes, there’s also a myriad of perplexing Post Office policies. Such policies include punching in various codes for different offices, routes, and assignments.
You must follow required procedures and hit scanned checkpoints from the time one departs on a route, at various points along the way, and then again punching in different codes and another scan point upon returning to the office. Everything is timed at the Post Office—from the time it takes a letter carrier to load a truck, sections along a route, and the carrier’s progress along the entire route.
I guess after following the same procedure for five, 15, or 30 years, the various codes and procedures become second nature for a veteran carrier. But for a new carrier, or for most sane people, it’s enough to drive one nuts.
Then, there’s also the constant badgering to shorten the time spent completing a route.
The Post Office has an established time for every route, as well as where a carrier should be at any particular time during that route. The supervisors constantly badger everyone—from CCAs to veterans—about that time, watching a carrier’s progress through the “scan points,” a system of electronic checkpoints along all the routes, monitoring a carrier’s truck through its GPS system, following carriers on their routes, calling and admonishing carriers to “Speed it up,” or simply belittling a carrier by asking, “What’s taking you so long?”
No explanation was ever provided to me of how the timing of the routes are established, such as, is it the average time of veteran carrier who has done the route hundreds or thousands of times over several years, or does the timing include the times of a new carrier which is still developing expertise in “fingering the mail” as opposed to “fondling” it—yes, those are actual Post Office terms.
District Manager Says Bad Supervisors Are the Main Reason So Many New Hires Quit
New carriers on an unfamiliar route can also waste time by not following the postal rule that you always go to the right—except when you’re supposed to go to the left or make a U-turn—searching for mailboxes hidden in bushes or down long driveways on dark nights, or (gasp) backtracking to deliver an overlooked package of the dozens of packages to deliver that day.
One of my several last straws came after I had spent nearly ten hours and, according to my iPhone app, hustled 5.8 miles getting in and out of a truck delivering packages. Working out of a large Post Office van, one of the supervisors, who claimed to be suffering from some sort of leg ailment, did the driving while I hopped out of the truck and then back in again. We, or rather I, delivered well over 100 packages on a sultry September Sunday.
It was certainly a hard day of work, but one I was willing to accept as part of the job. But my tolerance for this low-paying, thankless job continued to decline with the events of the next day.
When I reported for work that Monday morning, the morning supervisor called me into a private office to talk to me, not about what I thought was an energetic effort the day before in delivering packages, but rather to admonish me into reducing the full day I was taking to do a route of several hundred homes—a route the Post Office had determined should be done in six hours.
“I’m going as fast as I can, I’m not dilly-dallying, I’m not messing around,” I responded. “I don’t see how I can get that route done today in six hours.”
As I responded, I remembered back to the first day in the Postal Academy when the head of the district spoke to us and told us about the top three reasons CCAs quit—“The supervisors are assh---s.” His words, not mine.
A Summer of Torture
My ability to tolerate this job was certainly deteriorating and would continue to decline as I experienced a number of moments—ranging from less than warm and fuzzy to downright degrading—during my summer of torture working as a temporary letter carrier.
From the same supervisor, when I walked into the office a week or so later on a Saturday morning, I was matter-of-factly told, “I don’t need you today.”
When I responded I had received a text from another supervisor the night before telling me to report at 9:30, she persisted, saying, “No, I don’t need you.”
I pulled out my cell phone to show her the text. She had no response. Then I said, “Well, I’m guaranteed a minimum. Should I just begin the tour?”
“I don’t know about that,” she responded.
“Well, I do; it’s in the contract,” I argued.
She knew I was right, so begrudgingly, she had me deliver packages from a van. Then, with that brief assignment over, and no mail trucks available, I delivered mail from the van. Not an easy task since one must get out of the van at every stop, walk around the vehicle and deliver the mail. Once or twice is not too straining, but doing nearly 100 times tends to be a bit tiring.
A week or so after that memorable incident, the postmaster, who had been on vacation, and I walked into the same area at the same time. I was greeted with not a “hello” or any sort of pleasantry but coldly with “shoelaces untied—safety violation.”
Then, a few days later, after I had called her early in the morning to see if I was going to work that day, she called me back a few hours later and told me simply, “I didn’t call you back because I didn’t need you.”
Oh, the love.
Wasn't Going Fast Enough on 103 Degree Day
By then, I knew I was way past the time I was willing to waste my time toiling away in this thankless, low-paying, and what I had now determined—and apparently so had hordes of CCAs before me—would be a dead-end job.
On what turned out to be one of my last days, delivering mail during one of the hottest days of the year, in what veteran carriers said was an exceptionally heavy day of mail, my cell phone rang as I pulled into an apartment complex in the late afternoon.
It was the postmaster, demanding to know where I was. “I’m pulling into the apartments on Danville Boulevard,” I reported.
“The apartments,” she exclaimed with a sharp tone of disdain in her voice. I said nothing, then following a few seconds of silence, she simply said, “OK,” and hung up. She was clearly displeased.
A few minutes later, as I stood in the sweltering heat, placing mail in the complex’s mailbox, I felt a bit lightheaded, apparently from the scorching temperatures and possibly from the constant haranguing, a resident approached.
“Hot day for a job like this,” she said. “It hit 103 today.”
But despite the heat, for the postmaster, I wasn’t going fast enough.
By the way, several of us delivered mail until almost 11:00 that night. For me it was more than 13 hours of work, but for the regulars, who had come in earlier, closer to 15 hours.
The Post Office simply didn’t have enough people and equipment to deliver all the mail and packages they had—and they couldn’t hire enough new people to replace the ones who would quit almost immediately out of training.
Meanwhile, the weather cooled off later that week to more reasonable Bay Area temperatures, but the heat to “speed it up” continued.
On a Saturday morning, on what turned out to be my last day, a carrier who was restricted to office duty only because of back problems asked me to pick up some trays of mail for him.
“You’re affecting his loading time,” the supervisor hustled over and angrily admonished.
Later, after inspecting my truck, the supervisor scolded me for the way I had it loaded.
Seeing my exasperation, he further scolded, “I don’t care if you want it loaded that way; I want you to load it the way I told you.” he barked.
Escape From Postal Purgatory
Then, later that afternoon, while delivering mail, perhaps appropriately to a church, my escape from purgatory finally came.
As I noticed a mail van pull into the church’s parking lot, driven by the supervisor, I thought to myself, “OK, this could be it.” The supervisor, who had been following me, pulled up in the van and was quick to admonish me once again for taking too long on the route.
“I’ll take the truck back, and I quit,” I said, cutting off yet another scolding. “As I pulled away in the truck,” I added, “Effective immediately.”
Back in the office, I plopped down my ID and time card with the same supervisor who had arrived shortly after I did, telling me (of course) there was a form to fill out.
“Mail it to me; I’m off the clock,” I said as I walked out the door.
And with that, my brief Post Office career and my summer of torture came to an end.
As a rather laughable side note, when I went to pick up my last paycheck, a new “acting” postmaster, who was filling in for the previous loving and warm postmaster, told me since I had resigned, I “could always come back.”
Considering I had literally walked off the job, it pointed to how the Post Office is especially desperate for workers. But I wasn’t that desperate for work.
So, for anyone considering a job as a temporary letter carrier, unless you have no other alternatives, are desperate for work, or simply are willing to work whenever and wherever someone else dictates, my honest and heartfelt advice—don’t even bother filling out an application.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.
Questions & Answers
Question: Does the USPS ever fire anyone? Are there age restrictions for postal carriers?
Answer: I had heard of carriers being fired but have no first-hand knowledge of such firings. I'm not aware of any specific age restrictions and did see a number of people in their late 50s or early 60s during the interview process. In the Postal Academy, one of the instructors spoke of a woman in her 70s who was hired.
San Fran on December 13, 2018:
San Francisco was begging for help over the holidays- my office May not be perfect- but it’s pretty close- I’ve been in each and every office in SB and yes there are supervisors that shouldn’t be - my career has been with one - who lies and cheats and still counts with her fingers ..6.5 years as a ptf I had good but if I was sick I tried to tell them and got yelled at!
A supervisor that DOES care on December 12, 2018:
Your story is so spot on. I am a supervisor that put in 14 years as a carrier and the past 9 as a carrier/clerk supervisor. Over the past couple years, I have tried my hand at “moving up” in the company by taking on a couple of higher level details where I was placed in an OIC/Postmaster position and then a station manager role. Both positions, in my opinion were very hurtful to my career. And I say this because, I have first hand knowledge of how upper management dictates all moves made in your office and to your employees. Most lower level supervisors (and there are good ones but there are bad ones) are TOLD how, when and what to handle certain situations that deal directly with carriers and clerks and the mail. So by saying this, we as lower level (Postmasters/Supervisors) are NOT able to MANAGE to our ability. Upper management takes that all away from us and it’s an unwritten rule that you do not throw upper management under the bus. If you are not part of the “good ole boy club” and do not fit their agenda, then you are black balled and in some way, form or fashion you get ousted and are frowned upon by upper management and ALWAYS by the employees because of your label as a “manager” or “supervisor”. This creates such a divide in the Postal Service and inhibits a great deal of animosity between union and management. Some will walk around and disagree with me about this but don’t fool yourself by thinking that behind closed doors management doesn’t sit around and think the opposite of what they portray in your face. It’s sad, because this makes them two faced and I absolutely hate being a part of this organization to where I used to LOVE my job. I currently have 3 years left before retirement (10 yrs military and 23 years PO, 33 years federal service) so before many of you ask why I don’t just leave. Believe me, that day can’t come soon enough.
I spent 8 years as a shop steward while a carrier and believe me, there was many more “untruthful and disrespectful”) employees as to that of management on the LOWER level.
I, as well as MANY other lower level supervisors sympathize with the employees but are forced to do and say things that make us look like the asshole. I too feel extremely sorry for the pressures and situations many of the younger career employees are faced with these days.
Thank you for whom ever wrote and FINALLY put this article out there as it’s about time someone brought these things to light to the American people.
John Marshall (author) from Houston, Texas on December 12, 2018:
Tralfaz -- The supervisors were generally greatly disliked by the veteran carriers. One fairly new supervisor was generally regarded by the veterans as having been promoted to supervisor because she was a poor carrier -- their opinions, not mine!
Tralfaz on December 12, 2018:
30 years and I retire in Feb. The major problem with the Post Office is they can't get anyone to be management so they let anyone try. It's usually the lazy bullies that don't want to carry mail and prefer to walk around telling everyone else how to do their jobs. This is the only multi-billion dollar "business" that would put someone with a GED in charge of a unit or people. They are unencumbered by the thought process. I have had maybe 5 managers over the years that had good people skills but the overwhelming majority of them appear to be angry that they missed the age when they could have joined the Hitler Youth. I tell all the new people to not answer their phone on the street and the easiest way to make management look stupid is to do exactly as they say. I had a walking route for years and loved it, I will miss most of my fellow carriers and almost all of the customers. Here's how I did it, as I walked the route putting one foot in front of the other I would say to myself, "They're paying me all this money to do this?" If you can put up with the BS it's a great job, I will have a comfortable retirement now, good luck everyone.
John Marshall (author) from Houston, Texas on December 11, 2018:
Thank you for your comments Jake.
Jake on December 11, 2018:
Excellent report my friend.
I began my career as a letter carrier 10 years ago as a TE, the precursor to the CCA position. I have been a "regular" carrier for about 5.5 years now so I understand the struggle from both sides very well.
I am also a trainer in our district for our new CCAs in the classroom and hands on portion of the training process. Actually I should say I WAS a trainer. I became very disenchanted over the past few years with sending the lambs to the slaughter. I have heard stories from those I have trained and have seen first hand in my office how CCAs are treated and the unrealistic expectations set on them. I have since requested to NOT be scheduled to facilitate the training classes.
There are many issues at work within the process that the CCAs encounter.
To begin with, the hiring process sets the CCA position as a whole up to fail. Being that the USPS cannot discriminate they have to allow everyone that applies the equal opportunity to do the job. This job is not for everyone. It requires a level of physical fitness that maybe 60% of applicants have. I have seen trainees come in and quit day 1 just because they cant handle the walking and lifting.
Secondly, the over management of the CCAs (and all of us for that part) is ridiculous. They are treated badly by some management teams. The ones that they want to quit are treated worse than those that work well. I see it day in and day out. However, I get it... the supervisors treat the CCAs and regulars badly because the Postmaster yelled at them. The Postmaster yelled at the supervisors because the District Manager yelled at them etc... all the way up to who? The PM General?
I came into this career from the banking/finance industry. I was lucky enough to have a supervisor and Postmaster that nurtured me along and allowed me to grow this into a career. I would NEVER put up with what these CCAs put up with today.
The Mail Ma’am on December 11, 2018:
I very much appreciated this story. I had a very short career as a CCA in a small town. (7 mo). So much of what you said here is a reality of of the Postal Service. They care nothing about people. We are robots. Don’t talk while casing mail. Don’t come early to visit coworkers. Go fast. Get back and you’ve got 5 minutes to unload and go home. Even in a small town, the district bosses made it hell with constant pressure. My postmaster was great but I think everyone above her sucked!! You are nobody if you are not a career employee and they only take take of those people. We get scraps. If you have no life, no friends, and no family that you like to spend time with....this job is for you.
Rural carrier on December 10, 2018:
I agree with everything the sad part is cca go back out rural regulars do not. But the subs do so i would so my assigned route and then help any other routes running behind. The month of December my family doesn't see me i go in at 4am and go home at 12am. Now because of a accident i am on workmans comp which i would never recommend because no one wants to pay you. Its a diaster and the supervisor tried to lie to place blame on me but darnit witness were there and to many for them to kill haha.
John Marshall (author) from Houston, Texas on September 22, 2018:
Thank you. And you're welcome!!
Cecil Kenmill from Osaka, Japan on September 20, 2018:
Wow! Amazing story! Thanks for sharing.
John Marshall (author) from Houston, Texas on May 27, 2018:
Responding to Post officer supervisor: You would have done me a favor if you had fired me. Not only would have I gotten out of that miserable Post Office job sooner, but I would have been eligible for unemployment, giving me a substantial raise over my weekly Post Office paycheck. Pitiful indeed, unemployment would have paid me more than the Post Office was paying me.
But your comment that "I would’ve fired your ass and everyone in this post" is indicative of the problem the Post Office has with its supervisors, and subsequently in retaining new employees. You don't seem to understand the Post Office badly needs to retain its new carriers to, of course, help deliver the overwhelming amount mail and packages it can't even handle now, but also to replace the thousands of veteran letter carriers eligible for retirement.
What would you have accomplished by firing your "ass and everyone in this post?" Increasing the turnover rate to more than 60 percent, possibly 70 percent or more? And with the economy stronger and jobs more plentiful than when I toiled away as a CCA, perhaps with your attitude you wouldn't be able to keep new carriers in your office for more than a day. That won't get the volume of mail and packages you can't handle now delivered any faster.
As I wrote, the head of the district spoke to us and told us one of the top three reasons CCAs quit was because “The supervisors are assh---s.”
I suspect you probably don't care what the turnover rate in your office is. But ask yourself, how late are your regulars staying out -- and consequently collecting overtime, double time and penalty pay.
You're right, I wasn't held hostage, so I quit. Leaving more work for the regulars who the Post Office was paying about double per hour, and of course time-and-a-half, then double time and penalty pay.
How is your office doing?
Post office supervisor on May 27, 2018:
I would’ve fired your ass and everyone in this post. PDIs for you all. Complain complain complain. All your carriers do. You can move up in this company so easily but you choose to fight the system and be pains in the ass.
Get to work. Stop complaining. Your not held here hostage.
mike the mailman on May 27, 2018:
OMG! Thank you! Finally someone who explains the reality of Post Office and its the reason after 31 years I only got 4 months left. Could not take the morons in manglement anymore!!! I feel sorry for people with 2 years plus left let alone newbies with 30+ left Yikes!
Mark Duell on May 14, 2018:
As a 30 year retired letter carrier I can say everything that was written is true.
Kathleen McHugh on May 12, 2018:
Worked long Island 21 years, thankfully PO offered early out and I took it. Worst company I ever worked for. You need OT in order to live in certain areas of the US (no area wage) so job becomes your whole life. Don't ask for a day off, if supervisor doesn't like you they deny your request. It was a pretty good job when I started in 1988 but has become more and more unbearable. I feel for anyone who is still there.
Mailman on May 12, 2018:
True true true all of it. And in all parts of the country. It’s a thankless job. I have 15 years in. I wouldn’t make it if I started in todays conditions.
John Marshall (author) from Houston, Texas on March 19, 2018:
Thanks for you comments Dr Mark. Yes, the job wasn't worth the grief.
Dr Mark from The Atlantic Rain Forest, Brazil on March 19, 2018:
I am sorry you went through this but I had to laugh at several points. What jerks. I had a family member in the the US who was working for the postal service, and he was offered a substansial raise to become management. He turned it down. When I asked him why, he told me that the supervisors were a**holes, and since he was not he could never do the job. His words, not mine!