Postal City Letter Carrier Past and Present - Has The Job Changed and Where Is It Going?
Flash back about two months ago to July 28th, 2016, when I wrote an article comparing and contrasting how a City Carrier Assistant's (CCA's) life was going to change upon being promoted to Regular City Carrier. The story generated a little bit of buzz when I posted it on Facebook, but one comment in particular caught my attention because it was a fairly obvious point that escaped me altogether. I will allow Joy, a letter carrier from Oklahoma, to express the thought in her own astute words:
I think the new people are going to have a harder time than the people who have been here for 30 years. I started before DPS and FFS. We were in the office for 4 hours and on the street for 4 hours. We didn't work late and we didn't have management looking to fire us. 7 hours a day for the next 30 years is very wearing on a body. If you end up working 2 hours of overtime, that is 9 hours a day. I see way more injuries in the future of the post office. Just my opinion.— Joy, Oklahoma Letter Carrier
With this single quote, Joy has very capably composed this blog for me already. Nevertheless, I am still going to add some perhaps unnecessary filler to it, even though she succinctly hit all the main points. I must add that Joy has given me permission to hijack her idea. This happened after I replied to her comment by saying "I wish I had thought of that," something that aspiring writers are never supposed to say, because our mission in life is to think of everything first, that's why we're writers for crying out loud. Nevertheless, she quite graciously replied:
Feel free to steal it for another blog.— Joy, again
Thank you Joy. I will gladly take you up on your offer. Let's see if I can add anything relevant or interesting to your keen analysis on the condition of the City Letter Carrier's job today vs. yesteryear.
Postal Old Timers Sing The "Expectations Exceed Performance" Blues
I, not Joy, started in the Postal Service in late 1993, at a time when Delivery Point Sequence (DPS) mail was just being introduced on a beta testing basis to a select few offices, my first and present station being one of those. As a newbie, I really didn't comprehend the pre-DPS world, when letter carriers had to manually case multiple trays of "two pass" mail into delivery order. During this DPS trial period, the carriers at my station were still allowed to case up the DPS mail. Most of the grumbling old-timers, being resistant to change as we old farts typically are, chose to do so.
Twenty-two years later I am now a grumbling old-timer myself, so I understand the reluctance of my long-in-the -tooth coworkers to try out new things, to embrace new technologies. Twenty-two years down the road, I now understand that much of the bellyaching and foot dragging among experienced carriers happens because new Postal technologies are typically buggy in the beginning, and expectations for them typically greatly exceed performance. But at that juncture of my Postal career, being a crisp green leaf that had not yet wilted from 20 years in the searing sun, I thought this DPS stuff was fantastic. Why waste time casing it when it was already cased for me? I grabbed that automated mail and loaded it as quietly as possible into the vehicle when I thought the cranky old timers weren't watching.
A very short time later, DPS mail was introduced across the width and breadth of the Postal Service. Casing it in the office was eventually no longer an option. No matter how loudly the gradually dwindling ranks of old-timers grumbled, they had to take it straight to the street without prior fingering or any other forms of postal foreplay perpetrated upon it. A pair of decades after its advent, even scrutinizing the neatly machined DPS stacks as if contemplating casing is enough to attract the attention of a scowling, prowling supervisor, bearing a horsewhip to herd wayward carriers back into their authorized work flow.
At its inception, DPS was not the salvation for the Postal Service that it was intended to be. For many years the total amount of automated letter mail barely exceeded the 50% level, and letter carriers still routinely left for the street at 10:30 or later. At that point, there was still enough non-automated letter mail to justify having separate letter and flat cases for each route.
Gradually, however, the DPS mail percentage increased to respectable levels, and supervisor floggings became more frequent and severe. The letters/flats mirror cases were steadily replaced by the "single-cell," configuration we have today. As the DPS numbers went up, whether through more efficient processing or via shady methods of measurement, expected office departure times decreased in inverse proportion. Nervous, clipboard-bearing managers, citing mostly illusory, unrealistic numbers spewing forth from the mouth of a ravenous, wildly-wailing newborn cyber-baby called DOIS (Delivery Operations Information System), stalked the workroom floor, sweeping up any sluggish carriers caught lingering about the office. DOIS became the fake teeth behind the hollow, phony barks of postal managers everywhere.
Crash and Recovery?
When I started in the Postal Service in 1993, the organization was on a comparatively sound, stable footing. Priority Mail, introduced in the 1990s, turned out to be a big money-maker. Over on the red ink side of the balance sheet, DPS was not the magic cure-all for everything that ailed the business, but it did bring about productivity gains that I don't think can be disputed by even the most fanatical postal prophet of doom. In short, the future looked rosy enough to take the wind out of the sails of dark political antagonists preaching the sinister sermon of privatization.
I don't remember the exact point that the free fall into financial distress of the Postal Service began, but I believe it must have been around 2008, when the so-called "Great Recession" collapse started. First Class mail volume went into rapid decline, in lockstep with the American economy. Coupled with the disastrous effects of the PAEA (Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act) of 2006, which mandated a 5-billion-dollar annual payout into the pension system, this swift reduction in revenue had letter carriers sweating about their future employment for the first time since my mailman career began.
The 10:30 street time start was no longer the standard. From the cushioned chair of a detail assignment I polished with my back end for four years, I heard rumors of letter carriers volunteering for "pivots" on other routes because the lack of mail meant they were leaving for the street much earlier than previously, and there was too much time on the street to fill. In the past, the few times I had been pressed for a pivot I had responded to with raised eyebrows and a puzzled expression, which usually killed the request. But lengthy pivots and 9:00 street times became the expected norm, rather than the oddball exception encountered in overly-zealous, gung-ho "runners."
The Postal financial nose dive also resulted in route reductions. My delivery unit was reduced from 30 to 25 routes in about a year and change. Carriers on the bottom of the seniority list had their routes abolished in one sinister blink of a DOIS eyeball, then were sent packing to other towns. With the number of routes dropped precipitously, street time for the remaining routes ballooned accordingly.
When mail volume began to creep out of the bottomless pit into which it had plummeted during the recession, and new contracts with major mailers like Amazon brought in an unprecedented influx of parcel volume, there was no real effort made to slash back the now bulky, overburdened routes to their pre-Recession form, or at least to a close approximation thereof. As Joy mentioned above, this meant that letter carriers were now spending a grueling seven hours on the street, instead of the easy four or five that had been the norm in the past. Furthermore, the degraded financial condition of the Postal Service meant that micromanaging managers at Headquarters were sending down impossible directives to micromanaging Area Managers, who were in turn passing these pipe dreams along to micromanaging District Managers until, finally, the ever swelling turd balls rolled their way downhill to Postmasters, who then splattered letter carriers with them.
Enter FSS - A False Postal Prophet Preaching a Phony Gospel
The Flat Sequencing System (FSS) was envisioned by Postal planners to be the automated counterpart for "flat" mail, defined as being bigger than 6 1/8 inches tall, and/or wider than 11 1/2 inches. For those not fluent in postal speak, envision a flat as being roughly magazine size. Prior to FSS, significant office time was used by letter carriers to sort flats into delivery sequence, causing precious productivity blood to spill from the bottom time.
When I was working the Operations detail I mentioned previously, I spoke to the manager who was overseeing the FSS experiment in our district. I expressed to her my belief that FSS, like its DPS cousin on the letter side, would go through a bug-filled break-in period before it achieved the kind of savings that its architects were expecting.
"Oh no, this is going to be perfect from the beginning," she assured me.
Although I am currently blessed by working at a non-FSS station, I was at an FSS office on the day of the system's roll out, so I was there to witness "perfection" in action. As an eyewitness on the scene, I can recount to you that the same sad, bluesy old Postal tune about how "performance does not measure up to expectations" once again rang out its dissonant melody in the jaded ears of Postal employees everywhere.
In anticipation of the "proven" 90% expected by FSS at the starting gun, routes were again slashed prior to its implementation. There were only token efforts made to evaluate how the system worked in reality, vs. how it had performed perfectly in a sterile testing environment. Postal Pundits and Prophets had dipped so deeply and frequently into the spiked punch bowl of FSS Kool Aid that they were giddily drunk from the thought of expected office time savings, and refused to snap out of their intoxicated stupor when the system's performance failed miserably on the postal workroom floor.
It was quickly discovered that the FSS system was not processing anywhere close to the advertised 90% of flat mail. Under real-time loads, the machines were jamming frequently and sometimes chewing first and second class flats into tasteless little tidbits. A command decision was made that first and sometimes second class flats would not be processed in the FSS machines at all, meaning that output wasn't anywhere close to the 90% envisioned.
What did this mean for letter carriers? As it turned out, already overburdened routes were weighed down even more, and the "pivots" so confidently expected by management turned into overtime. Nonetheless, the ostriches preening their fluffy feathers in the hallowed halls of headquarters buried their heads even deeper in the sand, pushing letter carriers harder to produce the fake numbers demanded by largely chimeric assumptions.
In his superb "Dead Tree Edition," my fellow postal blogger D. Edward Tree cites several disturbing numbers related to FSS implementation and actual performance.
According to Mr. D. Edward Tree, by 2013 the Postal Service had acknowledged that its 1.3 billion dollar investment in FSS had resulted in increased, rather than decreased flat processing costs. "...far too many flats were rejected from the FSS, and some either disappeared or had unacceptable delays." FSS machines were only processing 58% of flat mail, and instead of productivity gains, the "proven" system had only produced longer routes, extended street times and higher overtime and grievance payouts.
State Your Opinion
What is the underlying cause of increased Postal injuries?
Joy to The World or Anarchy in The USPS?
This brief stroll down Postal Memory Lane has brought us to the current woeful state expressed so pithily by my friend Joy in Oklahoma, where "...the new people are going to have a harder time than the people who have been here for 30 years." So will the Postal employees be singing "Joy to the World," in defiance of our rather pessimistic postal-person in OK, where everything is not always "OK," or will they instead be belting out a rather discordant, ear-rattling version of an old Sex Pistols song, renamed "Anarchy in the USPS?"
In truth, there is not much cause for optimism. Longer routes and longer street times are not trendy "flavors of the month," but seem to be permanent fixtures on the menu. Although the wisdom of Postal Management's relentless wringing of the nearly-dry productivity sponge may be subject to debate, continued attempts at automation are only going to result in an ever-shrinking carrier work force being pushed to do more.
More time on the street means more exposure to the painful consequences of slips, trips, and falls, as well as an increased risk of motor vehicle accidents. The meteoric rise in parcel volume also signifies more strain on already tender shoulders and spines. Which leads us to another of Joy's assertions - "I see way more injuries in the future of the Post Office. Just my opinion."
It's not just your opinion, Joy, it's the opinion of a lot of credible sources, including our friend D. Edward Tree once more, who cites a report by the Office of the Inspector General (OIG), that supports your hypothesis.
The OIG report states that the Postal Service's Workers Compensation costs have increased 35 percent since 2008. Worker's comp per work hour in the USPS is also chronicled in those findings as being 59 percent greater than those of comparable private-industry work forces.
The report hems and haws its way around the cause of the increased injuries, but 2008 was about the time that the Postal Service began to eliminate routes in earnest. The OIG can use pretty double-speak terms like "older work force" and other head scratching justifications that stretch the laws of cause and effect to ridiculous extremes, but those of us who deliver mail on the street tend to draw our own conclusions.
The conclusion letter carriers draw is that we are getting hurt more because we are being asked to stay on the street longer—those same postal mean streets replete with buckled sidewalks, hidden sprinkler heads, concealed tree roots, and all similar manner of deadly mailman minefields. The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak. Tiptoe as we might through and around these obstacles, the risk to letter carrier life and limb is on the rise.
Sorry, most astute lady carrier from the Sooner State, but Joy to The World will probably not be the cheery theme song of future letter carriers trudging along in the trenches. How about Tennessee Ernie Ford's "Sixteen Tons," instead?
You load 16 tons and what do you get? Tennessee Ernie sings a woeful tune that seems written for Letter Carriers
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