Pending Postal Issues for the New Year 2020
The More Things Change The More They Stay The Same
When I started blogging about the United States Postal Service—roughly seven years ago now—the threats against our organization seemed daunting, insurmountable. Deposed Postmaster General Patrick R. Donahoe had unilaterally declared an end to six-day delivery, without the approval of Congress. I almost drove my Chevy off the levee when I heard that news on the radio. Supervillain Darrell Issa was in Congress, patrolling the unhallowed halls of the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, rubbing his hands in glee as he plotted the destruction of all things postal. It was a rough ride back then, but Postal Employees got together and checked the threats, like we always do.
But no matter how many times the postal villains fail, no matter how many times the people speak out in our favor and their representatives check the plotted destruction of the Postal Service, the bad guys still manage to wriggle their way out of Arkham Asylum and come back in different costumes, ready for another go.
Sauron had his magic ring sliced from his finger, but snuck his way back into Mordor to regroup. Voldemort's spell ricocheted off Harry Potter's forehead and sent him slithering into hiding for a while, but he gathered his death eaters together again to bring down the wizarding world.
Moral of the story? Never count the bad guys out. They swap clothes, wear different makeup, try to convince you they are reformed, repentant, different than before, but they always come back for an encore performance, wearing a new mask that hides the same old bum beneath. The more they change the more they stay the same.
And so we move into the the new decade, unsure yet if it will be the roaring or snoring 20s, with the forces of darkness regathering in the gloom around us. Our current President has shown his true attitude toward working people by rallying these resurrected foes around him, and is preaching the gospel of privatization to an eager choir. Meanwhile, the congregation naps.
But all is not doom and gloom. Some necessary changes are slowly working their way down the postal pipeline too, changes that will hopefully be implemented in the year 2020, or will at least give some promising indications of being implemented.
Uncertainty is the only certainty, and the only constant of the modern postal employee is inconstancy. So whether the change be for the good, or the change be for the bad, let change be your watchword for 2020. Adapt to it or fight it, as necessary.
Pending Postal Change 1 - Scanner Replacement
The USPS is about to implement its fourth different scanner, really four and a half if you want to get technical about bad technology. I hope you appreciate that I got out my archaeologist's pick and Indiana Jones hat, to do this little bit of historical research for you, digging among the tar pits and deep sedimentary layers to expose these dinosaurs. Here are some fossils I unearthed on the evolution of postal scanning.
- In 1997 the Mobile Data Collection Device (MDCD), manufactured by Lockheed, became the Postal Service's first hand held scanner. My memory is fuzzy on this little machine, but it was pretty bare bones, gray letters against a light background. Of course the Postal Service was already late to the party when it released this gadget, UPS and FedEx having already been aboard the technology train for years. The MDCD was pretty much outdated the day it rolled out. All the same, it stuck around for ten years.
- In 2007 Motorola's Intelligent Mail Device (IMD) replaced the MDCD. In retrospect, the Intelligent Mail Device was not so intelligent. It looked more high tech than its predecessor, but couldn't do much more. Instead of getting signatures for accountable items on the scanner screen, carriers had to bring back a stack of signed 3849s. The most primitive aspect of this device, same as its forebear, was the lack of real time scanning ability. The IMD had to be docked to upload its scans to the web, meaning most customers got a delivery message after they had already picked their package up off the porch. A few of these relics are still wallowing around post offices, like Brontosauruses grazing in a swamp, and woe to you if they run out of scanners and you get stuck with one.
- To combat the lack of real time scanning functionality, in 2013 the IMD was paired with what can only be called a disposable drug dealer flip phone, the kind your grandpa, and only your grandfather, takes along on his fishing trips. The "clam shell" phone had to be constantly joined at the hip with the IMD, and a lot of letter carriers rubber banded them together as a technological work around.
This little bit of sifting among the ruins brings us up to 2014, when the Postal Service replaced the IMD with the Honeywell 99EX for its MDD (Mobile Delivery Device). The MDD at last overcame the sticking point of real time scanning, but from the day it rolled off the line, and possibly before, it proved to have other significant problems.
No doubt the MDD alleviated the embarrassment of letter carriers having to lug around a gangsta phone to transmit scan data. Ending that indignity made this transition a welcome one in itself. But every American Letter Carrier burdened by this blue beast will sadly agree with the Office of Inspector General report, one which identified the MDD as suffering from "system network connectivity issues and MDD conditions, such as screens freezing and laser beam readers malfunctioning...(and)Inadequate network connectivity..."
If you're reading this the odds are good you are a letter carrier, and if you are a letter carrier you have certainly experienced MDD screen freeze. It's painful like brain freeze, but without the smooth delicious goodness of ice cream that makes it worth it. I have to remove my MDD battery at least once a week for screen freeze, then endure an agonizing wait while the device reboots.
Battery life is another bane of the MDD. Even we fair weather Palm Tree postmen sometimes carry a spare battery on long days, but for you Polar Posties working in those frigid climes up there by the Arctic Circle, apparently the problem is more pronounced. I guess the technical explanation is that the tiny hummingbird heart of the MDD has to beat faster in the cold to maintain its body temperature, and this drains the battery quicker.
The OIG concurs, saying that "The shorter-than-required battery life and other functionality issues caused letter carriers to use ineffective and inefficient workarounds." Whenever the term "work around" is used in a postal context it usually involves the application of rubber bands, but in this case I think it means that letter carriers take pictures of bar codes after their scanner batteries die, then input the bar code data into a live scanner when they return to office. Who hasn't done that once or twice?
Point being, the MDD is dying a premature death, and is due to be replaced this year by the Zebra TC77 touch computer. Yes that's right, it will have a touch screen just like your phone, and will also incorporate Android software. I guess the Postal Service thinks we're on our phones all day anyway instead of delivering mail, so we should be pretty damn familiar with Android. Accordingly, the lessened learning curve is supposed to magically make us miss fewer scans.
Even as I write this, battery life for the new machine is being tested up there in the icy polar flyover where you live but I, by the grace of God and borrowed money, do not. Hopefully testing in real world conditions will eliminate the charging problem before it starts.
Sounds real nifty and fail safe on paper, doesn't it, but what Postal Product ever rolls out perfectly? DPS was defective when it was introduced, FSS was an epic fail, and I predict that 2020 will reveal some bugs in these new scanners, too.
Pending Postal Change 2 - Long Life Vehicle Replacement
Long Life Vehicle has proven to be a prophetic title for the Postal Service's ubiquitous right hand drive delivery truck, the one spotted daily on American city streets and country roads from Hartford to Honolulu, from Waco to Wasilla, with a maple-leaf-colored variation dotting the frigid plains of Canada in between.
Grumman Corporation engineers may indeed have used a crystal ball while scratching their heads over a name for the lovable ladybug-like beast, with its terrifically tight turning radius. Yet even these farsighted seers could not have predicted that the much maligned, but fantastically flexible mover of mail would still be around 32 years after it first rolled out, back in 1987.
Alas, today the Long Life is increasingly suffering from burn out, much like the chastised chauffeurs that pilot it, but in the literal sense of the word. LLVs are more and more catching fire, with 145 such conflagrations having taken place between 2014 and 2019. Furthermore, internal postal documents suggest that the number may be under reported.
Various causes for the frequent flare ups have been hypothesized, from leaky wiper fluid compartments above the fuse box, to letter carriers performing "unauthorized modifications." Specifically, USPS management has pointed the finger at postmen and women for using scanner chargers for cup holders. Since no LLV I know has a scanner charger in the vehicle, this only being a feature of the yet flame-free Promasters, it seems an unlikely origin.
Whatever or whoever the culprit, the LLV is a fossilized relic from a geological era that predated the present proliferation of parcels, and it can no longer handle the load. As much as I can love the worn out mule, as much as this charming chariot has become an extension of myself, nothing lasts forever.
In 2015 the Postal Service grudgingly admitted it was time for a change, and began the process to develop a Next Generation Delivery Vehicle. The specifications for the truck are greater parcel capacity, modern safety features, and alternative fuel use. The contract for this NGDV was expected to be awarded by 2016, but the testing process proved to be more complicated than projected. 2019 found us still without a winner, but the field has been whittled down considerably.
Here are the last candidates standing, though Workhorse may have recently taken itself out of the running.
- Mahindra Automotive North America - Mahindra is an Indian tractor company, but is looking into the possibility of building its gasoline or mild-hybrid vehicle at a former Buick plant in Flint, Michigan. Will the lead-tainted waters pouring from Flint's faucets be a problem for production?
- Turkey-based Karsan is still in the running, proposing a plug-in hybrid engine option. This is easily the ugliest of the candidates. It looks like one of Sid's evil mishmash toys in Toy Story. If Karsan wins the contract, I will wear a bag over my head while driving.
- A Workhorse/VT Hackney team was one of the four finalists, offering a battery electric truck. Workhorse is a one hit wonder, gambling on being awarded the Postal deal for its future solvency. Should the Postal Service risk associating with such a fly by night firm? The point may be moot - Workhorse and VT Hackney have parted ways and this contestant probably will not be walking the runway.
- The Ford/Oshkosh contender is based roughly on the Ford Transit van, a vehicle approximately the same size and style as the left hand drive Dodge Promaster, presently in USPS service. Since the Transit is already being manufactured in large numbers, this may be the quickest entrant to roll off the assembly line into Postal Parking lots. On the downside, look out for low hanging carports, trees, potted plants, and other tight places the lovably compact LLV could squeeze into with daylight to spare. Many deliveries where I could stick my arm out the window may now require me to hop out on rickety, arthritic knees. Should I use a ladder, or parachute to dismount, like I do on the Promaster? Will all letter carriers need bionic knees by 2025?
Pending Postal Change 3 - Postmaster General Replacement
Sputtering along in our dilapidated but delightful LLV, we now replace our outdated PMG. Postmaster General Megan J. Brennan announced her retirement in 2019, to take effect on January 31, 2020. On January 6, Federal News Network reported that she has agreed to stay on past that date for an undisclosed period of time. President Donald Trump has been blamed for forcing her removal, a claim that Brennan denies. It could be the lady is just tired, but the more important question is - who will take her place, and what does that mean for Postal Employees and the American public?
There is a well-founded tendency among Postal employees to dismiss all managers as being opposed to their interests. Clerks are being pressured to sort a growing volume of parcels quicker, and carriers are subjected to the increased pressure of having our routes either eliminated, or added to. While Brennan was certainly a party to these unsettling cost-cutting measures, in her retirement statement she indicated that she is at least dedicated to the Postal Service's continuance as a public institution. “I have had the privilege to work with you over the course of my 33-year career. You embody the spirit of public service, you earn the trust of the American people every day, and you continually reinforce my reverence for this institution and my abiding belief in our mission.”
Brennan began her Postal Career as a letter carrier 33 years ago in Lancaster, PA. She succeeded Patrick Donahoe, confirmed to the post during the administration of President Barack Obama, an appointment clearly indicating that politics and postal policies are not always paired. Donahoe launched a campaign to eliminate 6 day delivery, a move that was stringently resisted by Postal Employee unions and the American people. This attempted end around of Congressional approval was shut down after a public outcry.
Like her forebear, Brennan has been the front runner in shady dealings that have torn the words "Postal" and "Service" asunder. She has overseen the closure of Post Offices and engineered the reduction of first class mail delivery standards. But for better or for worse, this first female postmaster resisted White House interference in Postal business.
In October, The Washington Post reported that President Donald Trump told top aides he wanted to remove Brennan, after she refused to charge Amazon more money for delivery. President Trump was loudly tweeting that the Postal Service was being gouged by Amazon, losing money on its contract with the Internet giant, effectively acting as Jeff Bezos' "delivery boy." Although there may be some truth to this accusation, Brennan resisted Trump's meddling and incurred the President's wrath in doing so. The move was beyond her control anyway - Amazon is under contract and The USPS cannot just present Bezos with a bigger bill without legal consequences. At any rate, the outgoing Postmaster denies that heat from the Trump administration influenced her decision to step down.
Will the next Postmaster General be able or willing to resist the President, as well as his allies at the Heritage Foundation, an organization that holds Postal Privatization as a top priority? This right wing "think-tank," a group that has hand-picked Trump's appointees since before his inauguration, has advocated the dismantling of the Postal Service since the 1980s.
The Postal Board of Governors, not the President, is tasked with the selection of the Postmaster General, but the Board of Governors members appointed by Trump could very well be Heritage pawns. The Governors' body is mandated to be balanced along partisan lines, but with 3 Trump appointees now on the five person board, chances are the group will lean toward a candidate that will attempt to transition the USPS from a public to private entity.
A consulting firm has been hired by the Board of Governors to seek a replacement for Brennan. Specific candidates have yet to be named, so it remains a mystery whether the incumbent will preserve the status quo, or attempt to implement changes that will be disastrous to America's favorite delivery service. Personally, I think the stink of privatization is in the air, and I believe that Postal Employees better gird themselves to fight the next wrecking ball to walk through the door. We did it successfully against Donahoe, and I am pretty sure that as long as the Postal Service continues to get high approval ratings with the American people, we can defeat the next guy or gal too.
Pending Postal Change 4 - Privatization?
The selection of a new PMG walks hand in hand with the next topic to be discussed, Postal Privatization. I am not Mr. Vegas, but I will take the over against your under that privatization will be a significant component of our next Postmaster General's marching orders.
In an executive order fiat, Donald Trump created a task force to reorganize the federal government. Buried deep within this document, like a deadly virus incubating in a human cell, is a directive to privatize the Postal Service.
A Washington Post quote reveals that the goal of Trump's USPS restructuring plan is no less than “to return it to a sustainable business model or prepare it for future conversion from a Government agency into a privately-held corporation.”
The Postal privatization effort seeks to "franchise" the mailbox, or literally sell access to mailboxes to private companies, for a fee. This practice would end the Postal Service's monopoly on first class mail, an exclusive domain that still provides 70 percent of Postal revenue, even in the e-commerce age, effectively subsidizing free home delivery for Americans.
The Presidential proposal is not designed to save the Postal Service. Its purpose is to fatten the old cow through market based reforms, making it a tempting dish for private sector wolves salivating in the wings, waiting for it to be sold off in delicious chunks.
The current President rants, tweets and thumps his crest like Postal Privatization is a fait accompli, a matter of him simply decreeing it to be so. But unlike The Apprentice, where he declares "you're fired" and his will is instantly carried out, the breaking up of the Postal Service is a more complicated affair, requiring the approval of Congress. If past performance is an indication of future results, this approval is not likely to happen.
The problem facing Trump's privatization scheme is that it transcends politics. Democrats and Republicans alike have fought to save the institution in the past, and they are likely to join together to do it again. Congressmen listen to their constituents, and a lot of the more vociferous constituents live in rural areas that would not be served by private companies, at least not at the reasonable rates these people are accustomed to.
At the Postal Service's low rates, UPS and FedEx cannot profitably drive twelve miles from their delivery hubs to deliver a box of medicine to the boonies. It is unlikely that the concept of Rural Free Delivery would even exist under such strictly "free market" conditions. In other words, Ma and Pa Kettle out there on the back forty would have to pay to get their mail delivered to their box at all, or else drive twelve miles into town to pick it up. These days, however, your Ma and Pa Kettles are increasingly voting Republican, which is why Donkeys and Elephants alike vote down such privatization plans.
The PEW Research Center reports that the Postal Service has a favorability rating of 88%, highest of all Federal agencies, and this endorsement comes from Democratic and Republican party voters alike (90-D, 87-R). Want to kill privatization? Write your Congressman, certainly, but if postal employees out there simply keep going above and beyond to provide excellent service, Americans will continue to vote their approval.
US Mail Not For Sale! Sign the Petition.
More Changes, More Similitude for 2020
Being the non-partisan favorite that it is, in an election year like 2020 the Postal Service may be safe from privatization. But if Trump comes back for another four with nothing to lose from dissatisfied voters, he and his Heritage Foundation puppet masters just may attempt it. Therefore, it is wise for Postal Employees and other stakeholders out there to remain vigilant.
There are other hot-button issues I could have discussed in this article, except that I ran out of room, and you ran out of patience. For instance, the installation of cameras inside postal vehicles is a pending change of concern for letter carriers, but since I recently wrote a rather long treatise on this subject I will refer you to that article instead.
There is also the matter of the Consolidated Casing Initiative. I have not researched this subject in great detail yet, but it is still a nagging gnat, buzzing around out there to bite us in the butt at some point. It will probably be the subject of a future article in this venue, so stay tuned.
Of course, not everything about 2020's Postal Service revolves around change, most things will stay the same. Cold, starving and exhausted when you go home? - Same. Demoralized by dealing with your demanding supervisor? - Same. Hobbling along with a sore shoulder on bad knees? - Same.
In other words, even though technology is expanding at such a rapid pace that our sluggish, mired in the muck institution cannot keep up with it, there are other aspects of the USPS that have been around since the time your Great Grandpa first slung a satchel, and will still be in place when your children sign up to be CCAs (heaven forbid). There are things about working at the post office that probably should be changed, but are unchangeable.
For everything else, stay alert! Sometimes our officers are asleep on the quarterdeck, and it will be up to us deckhands to steer this leaky ship through uncharted changes, hopefully into the next decade.