My Summer Working as a Temporary Letter Carrier for the US Postal Service
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 my job as a news writer, which came 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, obviously, 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 on their first day, resigned, or simply never showed up for work again.
“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, as well as 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, following required procedures and hitting 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 becomes 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 who 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 going 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 the 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 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, apparently, 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 the 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, am desperate for work, or simply am willing to work whenever and wherever someone else dictates, my honest and heartfelt advice—don’t even bother filling out an application.