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Postal City Letter Carrier Past and Present: Has the Job Changed and Where Is It Going?

Although many are mystified by his mysterious moniker, Mel Carriere is a San Diego mailman who writes about the mail, among other things.

An assortment of Postal patches from the past.

An assortment of Postal patches from the past.

Postal Flashbacks

Flash back to July 28, 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 four hours and on the street for four hours. We didn't work late, and we didn't have management looking to fire us. Seven hours a day for the next 30 years is very wearing on a body. If you end up working two hours of overtime, that is nine 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.

In the past, Letter Carrier cases were so big they resembled Public Libraries in the sheer amount of shelves.

In the past, Letter Carrier cases were so big they resembled Public Libraries in the sheer amount of shelves.

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 happen 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 workflow.

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.

These old style apartment mailboxes, complete with speaking tubes, must have been real mailman knuckle-busters.

These old style apartment mailboxes, complete with speaking tubes, must have been real mailman knuckle-busters.

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 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 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.

This was the first Postal Vehicle I drove in 1993.  In the pre-Amazon era, all of the mail used to actually fit into one of these.

This was the first Postal Vehicle I drove in 1993. In the pre-Amazon era, all of the mail used to actually fit into one of these.

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 rollout, 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 versus 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 frequently jamming and sometimes chewing first- and second-class flats into tasteless little tidbits. A command decision was made that first-class 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 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.

Are the days of leisurely collection box lunches a thing of the past  for the American letter carrier?

Are the days of leisurely collection box lunches a thing of the past for the American letter carrier?

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 workforce 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. This 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 workforces.

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 workforce" 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?

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.


Donna C on January 05, 2018:

I remember when the job was fun. I can say I have loved my job of more than twenty nine years. Now it is so sressful that I can't wait to retire. Add to that the ten degree days and management lying on a daily basis about the workload. I do feel bad for the cca. How will they be able to make a career of it? Will the money be there in the retirement ? I can only hope. Thanks for your blog.

Mel Carriere (author) from Snowbound and down in Northern Colorado on October 25, 2016:

Thank you Devika. I always appreciate you reading.

Devika Primić from Dubrovnik, Croatia on October 25, 2016:

You shared from your heart and to the point.

Mel Carriere (author) from Snowbound and down in Northern Colorado on October 11, 2016:

I don't think you are alone Jeff. As long as you are getting the job done they probably look the other way. Thanks for reading.

Jeff Anonymous on October 10, 2016:

I don't care what the supervisors say. I'm not carrying 3 bundles, ever. I sneak the DPS & FSS into the case every day.

Mel Carriere (author) from Snowbound and down in Northern Colorado on October 02, 2016:

Squeezing a dry dishrag until it rips, Deb. I wonder if the increased workers comp insurance offsets the extra pennies they bleed out of us. Thanks for reading.

Deb Hirt on October 02, 2016:

It's always something, isn't it? I remember hand sticking a lot of letters that couldn't go through the machines, sorting the flats that couldn't be sorted by the machines, and al those unreadable packages. It hasn't changed much other than making everyone work harder now.

Mel Carriere (author) from Snowbound and down in Northern Colorado on September 29, 2016:

Well said Mark. The only thing I would dispute is that most CCAs are making regular in 2 years or less. Still, it's a long road to hoe. Thanks for reading.

Mark Santoro on September 29, 2016:

The situation is far more dire for the new employees than this article may led one to believe. I have also seen changes in my 32 years as a carrier in the post office and 99% are not good. If you are a cca starting now you are not going to make it. A cca's time towards their retirement doesnt even start until they make regular so if you are a cca for 5,7 or 9 years add that amount of time onto your mandatory 30 years. Add to this you have a scanner that tracks your every step, how long you take a bathroom break and even how fast you drive. It's more as if you are a prisoner with an ankle braslet on. I too was a pre dps and fss carrier. Fss is the biggest money drainer the postal service has ever come up with other than management. They already know that the flat volume doesn't use of fss machines. The flats have to be deliever to the plant, sorted by towns, run through the machines,swept,put in trays,loaded onto racks,loaded onto trucks, driven to each office,unloaded, off the truck,wheeled into the office,taken off the racks, loaded into your llv and at End of this angonizing process process it adds 30-45 minutes onto your road time when it can be pitched by hand in less than ten minutes. How stupid is management? They made a huge mistake and are to arrogant to admit it. Fss will be gone in 5 years. Yes the routes have gotten longer and this is literally the kiss if death. Even if you o make the 30 years your body and mind will have gone through so much punishment you will be in pain and rehab for the rest of your life. The real issue is that the decisions being made that effect the postal service are being made by people that have no clue about what it takes to do this job. They believe we are computers that you program and we go on the road and just found what we are programs yo do. They just don't have a realistic grasp of what this job intails in a daily basis never mind 30 years.

Mel Carriere (author) from Snowbound and down in Northern Colorado on September 29, 2016:

Greg I usually don't write with rurals as a target audience, but I suppose a lot of this applies to you guys too, particularly the ballooning parcel volume and uninspired managers. Thanks for your great comment and invite your rural friends to the party here.

Mel Carriere (author) from Snowbound and down in Northern Colorado on September 29, 2016:

Wow DC, you've been doing this since you were a baby and still no end in sight. Subtract 4 years from your age and my story is the same as yours, except I don't get cooked 10 months out of the year. My only hope is to get rich writing, but that's a long shot. I don't know what kind of false hope to offer you, except you have a kindred spirit here that feels your pain. Thanks for reading.

Greg Bilhimer on September 29, 2016:

I am rural carrier in an FSS office and this article is right on point.

I started as a sub in 85 and turned regular in 91. Things are so much different now, the old management left and were replaced by people with literally no experience.

My route I've been on since 2007 has increased 120 plus deliveries and the evaluation is about the same as when I started.

Amazon parcels are a killer, I hope my back holds out 5 more years until I am eligible to retire with 31 years in.

I loathe the micromanaging, if they would back off and let us experienced carriers do our work things would be a lot easier.

Some days I think they want to get rid of me just to save money since I'm senior in my office on the rural side.

Stay safe out there everyone.

D C Leal on September 29, 2016:

Where to begin.... Every bone in my body hurts. Knees destroyed. Every fiber of my being aches. I'm being cooked to death for 10 months of the year, (which really is the very worst part). Wearing thoroughly sweat soaked clingy clothes for 7 hours. Never ending skin cancer. Death would be freeing. 32 yrs in, 56 yrs old, unable to ever see a way financially to get out. Modern day sweat shop slavery. Overheated & delirious.

Mel Carriere (author) from Snowbound and down in Northern Colorado on September 28, 2016:

Marylou, I was one of those hired in 93 after the mass exodus. I have my share of aches and pains, a bad knee, bad ankle, inguinal hernia repair in 1998, and psoriasis (with psoriatic arthritis), that I believe was triggered by leaning up against the bumper of the LLV while sorting parcels, because that is where the psoriasis started. It's a grueling job. I can definitely feel your pain and I hope you are able to cruise into the sunset relatively pain free. Thanks for commenting.

Marylou LaRose on September 28, 2016:

I started in Feb 1987 in Windsor Locks, CT. I thought the weather was the worst thing I would have deal with. Then DPS came. Then the early retirement option aimed at trimming the fat and dead wood of management backfired on the USPS and a mass exodus of seasoned carriers occurred. That's why so many carriers were hired 93 - 96. Fortunately i relocated to Iowa before FSS came to CT. Unfortunately the bodily damage had already happened. 3 foot surgery and a knee surgery, severe arthritis in both feet, both knees, both hips, and my lower back have left me with a permanent partial disability and an 8 hr work day restriction. Less than 18 months to go.....

Mel Carriere (author) from Snowbound and down in Northern Colorado on September 27, 2016:

Happy for you chillin' I'm glad someone is,having fun.

Chillin on the beach. on September 27, 2016:

Dear Mel i am so glad i retired from your horrible office. Stopped working at 55 and retired at 56 dont miss it one bit. If I had 10 more years I would jump of the Coronado bridge

Mel Carriere (author) from Snowbound and down in Northern Colorado on September 27, 2016:

I need all the blessings and energy I can get at this juncture of my life, Kim. The greatest comment you can give is to tell me I have taken a superficially dull topic and somehow made it interesting. Many blessings back at you.

ocfireflies from North Carolina on September 27, 2016:


Per usual, you have written a stellar hub and presented it in such a manner that even PO uninformed people like myself can understand complex systems. I live in a rural area so I do not see foot delivered mail, but more hours carrying heavier loads can not be easy. I salute you and wish you energy as you make your way.



Mel Carriere (author) from Snowbound and down in Northern Colorado on September 26, 2016:

Drones worry me PDX but we'll cross that bridge when we get there. Perhaps the Post Office should invest in drones, to get a jump. I am glad you are satisfied with the Postal Service. It took us a while to catch up on scanning, but I think we're getting there.

PDXBuys from Oregon on September 26, 2016:

Interesting hub. I sell on eBay so I am at the local PO frequently. The service has been excellent. I appreciate the hard work of all the USPS employees. The new computer automation has been wonderful - I can track delivery from the comfort of home! This brings peace of mind knowing that the buyer received what I shipped. They say email killed the USPS but online sales brought it back. Do you agree? What do you think will happen if drones are employed for deliveries?

Mel Carriere (author) from Snowbound and down in Northern Colorado on September 25, 2016:

I just hope they can keep me glued together, Linda, because it is a struggle to put one foot in front of another sometimes. Thanks for dropping in.

Linda Crampton from British Columbia, Canada on September 25, 2016:

I'm glad that you like your job, Mel. I hope you still feel this way as the years pass. It sounds like there are a lot of problems with the Postal Service.

Mel Carriere (author) from Snowbound and down in Northern Colorado on September 25, 2016:

Fortunately for Joy, Mills, she is now coasting happily toward retirement. As for me, I have at least a decade left, if I can hold up that long. I still like the job in spite of the negative press I give it, but it takes a toll. Thanks for dropping in!

Mel Carriere (author) from Snowbound and down in Northern Colorado on September 25, 2016:

True on all points, Larry, but I think the Postal Service is especially hazardous because most people in their jobs don't trip on their way between the cubicle and the copy machine. I appreciate you dropping in.

Larry Rankin from Oklahoma on September 25, 2016:

As we try to squeeze every penny, it seems like we compromise with an overworked, understaffed workforce. That seems to be the condition everywhere, sadly even government jobs, which should be immune to this corporate greed.

Pat Mills from East Chicago, Indiana on September 25, 2016:

I know that a number of postal employees I was used to seeing, including my longtime carrier, have retired early as a part of helping to reduce expenses. I don't see a lot of young faces taking their places. I may have big workloads some days, but I'm glad I don't have them every day. It seems the USPS is going to have a big void to fill in personnel when folks like you and Joy either retire or face the misfortune of injury. It seems remote, but maybe somebody at the USPS will become an actual efficiency expert. I hope a solution comes before it takes a toll on anyone's health.