MAYBE, LIKE ME, ALL YOU KNOW ABOUT THE UNITED STATES POSTAL SERVICE is that stamps now cost 32 cents; a letter dropped into a blue box with an eagle on it will arrive anywhere in the country in less than a week (usually), delivered by someone in a blue uniform; and occasionally a postal worker shoots up a post office or someone finds a warehouse stuffed full of undelivered Dukakis/Bentsen campaign mail,
You probably didn’t know that last year the postal service delivered 177 billion pieces of mail, and a record 513,000 formal complaints were filed against the USPS. The postal service supports itself with postage fees as its revenue, and the United States’ 32-cent first-class postage rate is among the lowest in the industrialized world, less than half that of Germany, for instance. You may also not know that the USPS employs an army of 782,000 workers.
So what is it like to be part of the largest civilian work force in the United States? A newspaper ad invited postal workers to talk about their jobs, and from the many who replied, 15 agreed to be interviewed, all of them either letter carriers or clerks, none in management. A few requested anonymity.
Al McGraw has carried his route in Bay Park since September of 1979. Before that he worked as a postal security officer and in collections for the postal service. In all, he has worked 21 years for the post office. He’s 44 years old, and his family now includes his wife and six children, plus an Australian exchange student and a dog. His hillside home in Bay Park is on his delivery route.
I ask him to walk me through a typical workday. “I start at 7:00 a.m., and after I clock in, I make a vehicle check. When I come back in, the mail is at my case,” he says.
His “case” is a cubicle, similar to a reading cubicle at a library, but larger and divided into about 700 slots, each representing a particular mailbox or delivery along his route. Every letter carrier spends the first half of his or her day standing in front of a case sorting the mail for the route. “You’re expected to be able to case [sort] 18 letters and eight flats [e.g., magazines] per minute," he explains.
Next he has “accountables," which he has to sign for. These are “certifieds, registereds, and parcels that you take out. At 10:30 a.m., I’ll go out on the street and deliver the mail, and I’ll be off at 3:30 p.m. In that time, approximately five hours, I’m entitled to two ten-minute breaks [on the clock] and a half-hour lunch [off the clock].” Al says this schedule is more or less universal to letter carriers.
In addition to his duties as a letter carrier, Al is a union shop steward for the carriers’ union, the National Association of Letter Carriers. “My job as a shop steward is to protect employees’ rights on their contracts and to make sure that they [management] are not violating them. If there is disciplinary action. I’ve got to make sure that it is progressive in nature, not punitive, and if it is not, I file a grievance. I represent the employee and try to have [the grievance] reduced or thrown out,” he explains.
In his experience as a shop steward, Al has had a lot of contact with postal management, and he’s not impressed. “In the 21 years I’ve been with the postal service,” he says, “I’ve worked with over 100 supervisors, and I can count all the good supervisors on one hand. The rest of them were very unprofessional, rude, and insensitive.” What does he think causes management to be this way?
Al believes postal management is in an “untouchable” position and feels they can get away with anything. “Recently I filed 15 grievances in one week, but nothing really happens to the managers for causing these problems. Even though I’m a shop steward, I can’t discipline them,” he complains. “I think there will never be any changes in the postal service until management can be disciplined,” he says.
Lisa Miller also sees a hard side to the postal service bureaucracy. She is a 33-year-old mother of two who works, when they let her, as a letter carrier. Last June she was a 10-and-a-half-year employee who enjoyed her job delivering mail when she unexpectedly became enmeshed in what she portrays as a bureaucratic nightmare. One morning, just before going out on the street to deliver her mail, Lisa mentioned to her supervisor that she wasn’t feeling well and had a headache, all the while intending to deliver her route and complete her workday. But her supervisor told the station manager, and they decided to send her home.
“The station manager told me he was going to send me for a fitness-for-duty exam,” she recalls. So they put her on administrative leave with pay until the next opportunity for an examination arose. The one condition of her leave was that she call in every morning and ask if they needed her to work, which she did. She was told no each time. Toward the end of that month, Lisa received a form to be signed giving permission for the release of medical information. She was puzzled because it was a form usually sent just to new employees, so she showed it to a union representative. The union called the labor relations branch of the postal service, and they told her to disregard the form.
About a month later, Lisa received another letter from labor relations saying they were taking her off pay status because she had failed to provide the medical records they’d asked for. When she told labor relations that she’d been told to disregard the request, they replied that they had no record of telling her that. Because she then had problems obtaining her medical records from a local hospital, she was taken off of pay status. Lisa fought that decision and was reinstated, but was later taken off again.