San Diego mailmen spends half of their days sorting mail

I feel like I'm trapped

Downtown post office. What is it like to be part of the largest civilian work force in the United States?
  • Downtown post office. What is it like to be part of the largest civilian work force in the United States?
  • Image by Dave Allen

Al McGraw: “I’ve worked with over 100 supervisors, and I can count all the good supervisors on one hand."

Al McGraw: “I’ve worked with over 100 supervisors, and I can count all the good supervisors on one hand."

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.

Lisa Miller enjoyed her job delivering mail when she unexpectedly became enmeshed in what she portrays as a bureaucratic nightmare.

Lisa Miller enjoyed her job delivering mail when she unexpectedly became enmeshed in what she portrays as a bureaucratic nightmare.

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.

Mitch Farmer earns $35,000 per year base salary as an 11-year employee, and the benefits include 12 paid federal holidays, four weeks of vacation, 13 days of sick leave.

Mitch Farmer earns $35,000 per year base salary as an 11-year employee, and the benefits include 12 paid federal holidays, four weeks of vacation, 13 days of sick leave.

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?

Howie Verrill: Neighborhood collection boxes “would eliminate many disabling injuries, because you’re not tripping over lawns and sprinklers or going up frozen stoops and falling on your ass."

Howie Verrill: Neighborhood collection boxes “would eliminate many disabling injuries, because you’re not tripping over lawns and sprinklers or going up frozen stoops and falling on your ass."

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.

Nicholas Houze: "The local union office and the national office were both supporters of Clinton, whom I adamantly oppose.”

Nicholas Houze: "The local union office and the national office were both supporters of Clinton, whom I adamantly oppose.”

“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.

I meet John Knowles at 10:00 a.m. at a liquor store on the corner of University Avenue and 36th Street “I always come here for coffee before I start my route. They give me a deal on it.”

I meet John Knowles at 10:00 a.m. at a liquor store on the corner of University Avenue and 36th Street “I always come here for coffee before I start my route. They give me a deal on it.”

To date, Lisa says, she’s been through the on-pay/off-pay cycle several times. When she finally was sent to a fitness-for-duty exam, it was psychiatric, not physical. And Lisa claims she was misrepresented by the examining physician in his report. “I’ve lost lots of money, I almost lost my car, and I was evicted,” she says. She is still trying to get her job back.

Is Lisa’s case an anomaly, or are cases like hers common? A postal worker I’ll call Desiree feels that they are more common. Desiree, a bulk-mail clerk, is a 12-year postal service employee. She is very cordial and fond of telling stories and laughing.

“Postal workers have a black sense of humor," she says. “You have to, because every postal worker has gone through some kind of torture in working.”

For her the “torture” came in the form of an EEO (Equal Employment Opportunity) complaint that she filed (and won) against a station manager for giving male workers in the office preferential treatment. As Desiree tells it, the manager was letting men take time off to go to Padres’ games and giving women overtime to cover for them. He looked the other way as a male employee cheated on his timecard. And he would make audible, crude comments about the businesswomen who walked by the office at lunch time.

Rick Luna describes his job as “the easiest job I could ever have. I get paid basically for going for a walk every day out in the sun.”

Rick Luna describes his job as “the easiest job I could ever have. I get paid basically for going for a walk every day out in the sun.”

Because of these incidents, Desiree and some coworkers confronted the manager. “Basically I said, 'This is bull. You’re making women work to cover up for the men in this office. You’re going to have to correct the situation. If not, I’m going to file an EEO.’" He didn’t, so she did. The postal service sided with Desiree.

The manager, after what Desiree saw as just a slap on the wrist, agreed with his* superiors’ suggestion to settle things directly with her. “He did not,” she recalls. “He started harassing me and telling people I was stealing things from the office. He caused one supervisor to harass me constantly. I used to come home every night and cry, because I was afraid I’d get fired.”

The others that complained, did they receive the same treatment?

They didn’t, she says, and explains, “I was pegged as the ringleader, because I’m pretty forceful. No one really wanted to be around me, because they knew the manager hated my guts and was out to get me."

In the end, Desiree asked to be transferred to a different station. She suspects that even though she was backed in her complaint by the postal service, she will never be promoted to management. “I’m probably still ostracized at several levels. Whistle-blowers are not appreciated."

Despite all this, Desiree is very high on the postal service. “I like my job,” she says. “I like the people I work with. I do feel strongly about the post office. It has a lot of good points. I can't stress that enough.”

A carrier we'll call Henry, an immigrant from a Pacific Island nation, has been in the U.S. for eight years and has worked for the postal service four and a half of them. “The first week I was in this country," he recalls, “I saw an ad for a postal workshop, and the guarantee was you’d get 95 percent or better (on the Clerks and Carriers Examination], and sure enough, I got 100 percent."

Shortly thereafter, the postal service offered him a job. However, because he was making “tons of money" as a salesman at a compatriot’s appliance store, Henry at first turned down the offer. But in 1990, sensing an upcoming recession, he accepted. “I knew the handwriting was on the wall,” he explains. “The commissions were going down, and people were buying less and less, so I said yes to the post office, ‘I’m ready.’ ”

Although Henry likes delivering the mail (“I really get into it,” he says), he complains that “the post office is like a dysfunctional family.” He believes there is a lack of communication and understanding between postal management and craft employees. He recalls a former supervisor who’d say, “Okay, you’ve got four and a half hours. Here’s seven and a half hours of street time [delivery work]. Go out and do it, and be back!” He relates another story of a manager harassing him on the phone for calling in sick with anxiety attacks, and yet another story of a manager denying him time off he wanted to be with a friend who was going through a court case.

Of the various shooting rampages by postal workers, Henry comments, “In these cases you can see directly people whom management is pushing, and they explode.” Henry would like to see the postal service cut back on the number of managers and hire successful managers from the private sector, as opposed to promoting craft employees into management. “Obviously,” he explains, “if they’re recruiting from within the carriers or from within the sorters, and these people are becoming the militant little dictators, then that (recruiting policy] is wrong.”

On the phone, Mitch Farmer sounds like an easygoing, common-sense kind of guy who might be expected to supply an objective overview of the postal service. We meet at a Denny’s for coffee. “It’s the easiest job in the world if you let it be," he declares, taking a bite of apple pie. “Where else can you work basically an unskilled labor job for the kind of money we get and the kind of benefits we get?”

Mitch, who is 34, single, and a San Diego native, has sandy blond hair and blue eyes that light up as he tells a story. He is a T-6 letter carrier. Instead of carrying the same route every day, he works the route of one of five different carriers who is on his day off. His beat is the Linda Vista-Kearny Mesa area.

The money Farmer refers to is about $35,000 per year base salary as an 11-year employee, and the benefits include 12 paid federal holidays, four weeks of vacation, 13 days of sick leave, a variety of medical and dental plans to choose from, and a retirement plan.

But Farmer realizes there are downsides to the postal service. He experienced some of those as a union shop steward from January ’93 to September ’94. “My problem with a lot of the union and management things I saw was, both sides were just stone-faced. They wouldn’t budge. They wouldn’t move. All of the employees were very happy with what I was doing, at least most of them. Yet I kept getting flak from the union saying I was selling out to management, and management was mad at me for making deals,” he recalls. This prompted him to resign his position. “I said, enough of this! I just want to come in and work my eight or nine hours and go home."

What changes would he make in the postal service? “Hiring policy, number one. Give the test to everybody [who wants to take it] and hire based solely on test score, no other criteria.” Also in his list of changes is cutting back management numbers.

“It’s very top-heavy," he says.

Mitch would make it easier to remove what he calls “bothersome” employees. “Quite frankly, if the station where I work was my own business, one out of four people who work there would have their final paychecks tomorrow. Too many employees use this job as an entitlement. It’s not. You have to earn your paycheck.”

Finally, he would make route lengths standard instead of tailoring them to individual carriers. “Here’s what’s really peculiar. Your route is tailored to your abilities, based on an obscure minimum standard. Basically, for a given length of time, they will count how many pieces of mail you deliver or how many you sort to him and still do the route in eight hours, his route is twice as long or he gets twice the amount of mail. Yet he gets paid the same amount as the guy next to him doing half as much work.

“At a supermarket they’d say. There are five pallets of merchandise. Everybody here shelves that much in four hours.’ If you didn’t do it in four hours, you might get a pay cut or get fired. At the post office, if you couldn’t put up those five pallets, they’d say, ‘That’s okay, that’s your speed.’ It’s ludicrous! It’s nuts!” he says, laughing.

When I ask Howie Verrill how he’d improve postal service, he replies, “Number one. I’d standardize delivery. Have all residential neighborhoods, especially new housing developments, go to NDCBUs." Those are the gray, roughly 3-foot-by-3-foot boxes mounted at curbside in some neighborhoods, especially new housing developments, with from 6 to 16 locking mailboxes that serve the surrounding neighborhood. “That way everybody’s got a fair shake," he adds. From the quickness of his emphatic response, it seems he has thought this matter over.

Howie is a letter carrier in El Cajon. He is 44 years old, about six feet tall and slightly heavyset. His sandy blond hair is thinning and flecked with gray, especially in his mustache. He’s wearing a teal-colored golf shirt and his navy-blue postal uniform pants, still on after a day’s work.

Howie explains the virtues of neighborhood collection boxes. “They would eliminate many disabling injuries, because you’re not tripping over lawns and sprinklers or going up frozen stoops and falling on your ass,” he says with a laugh. “It’s much more accurate, and it makes it much faster to deliver the mail,” he adds.

“To put those things out there would be expensive,” he admits, “but you’d save in the long run by a carrier being able to do a lot more deliveries.” He also realizes that “with the public, it's a very tough sell.”

He thinks that the public could help themselves out by marking their mailboxes and putting them in obvious spots. “You can’t believe where people put boxes,” he says, shaking his head.

Howie feels the public has given the post office a bad rap. “People always remember that letter that was mis-delivered, but in 20 years I can’t remember anybody ever coming out and saying, ‘How the hell did you get this here? It doesn’t have a correct address.’ ”

He is proud of his job at the post office and has written letters to newspaper editors objecting to anti-post office articles and editorials. He’s also been on the Roger Hedgecock radio show to defend the postal service from those who would privatize it. “My girlfriend worries that I’m obsessed with it," he says, laughing.

Howie has offered to drive me around his route on his day off. When 1 show up at Howie’s house, his father is visiting. Howie says his dad used to be a mailman in Newport Beach and had John Wayne on his route.

How many letters had he delivered to John Wayne addressed only to “The Duke”? He replies, “Lots. But then we got a clerk who would send them back stamped ‘insufficient address.’ ”

Howie and I hop in his turquoise Thunderbird and set off around town. We drive up and down rural and semi-rural streets in El Cajon, Howie occasionally stopping to point out houses with no address on the mailbox. “I’m a big believer in overkill when it comes to marking a mailbox,” he says.

Now and then he stops the car, points to a mailbox, and quizzes me, “Now which house do you think that mailbox belongs to?” More often than not, I can’t tell. We drive through a neighborhood in which every house had a mail slot in the door, but each door is ten steps up and 50 feet from the sidewalk. “It doesn’t seem too bad when you look at one, but try doing 700 of them five days a week,” he says.

At one point he stops suddenly and yells, “Look at that!” pointing to a mailbox completely hidden in a hedge. “Who the hell would put a mailbox in a hedge where it’s hard to find?” he asks. “Probably the same guy who complains about his mail being mis-delivered."

A few days later, I meet a carrier I’ll call Bruce in a coffee shop on Adams Avenue. He is a single 35-year-old who was born and raised in San Diego. “I have a special, unique position," he says when I ask him to describe his job.

He has a small delivery route and collection duty that entails gathering mail from the blue curbside boxes, and then he ends each day by driving down to the airport to drop off express and priority mail. “It’s very routine, but not as routine as most routes, because different stuff happens,” he explains, leaning back in his chair. Asked if he has had problems with management, Bruce answers that he has, but is quick to point out that “it was a lot of years ago” and that “things have changed. They’re not as bad as they were at one time.” Bruce complains that his job has lost “the personal touch.” He explains, “They are really productivity-minded. It’s just the numbers on the sheet. That bothers me.”

Bruce is not a union employee, though he used to be. He feels the union occupies itself mainly with problem employees. He would like to see the postal service have stress-reduction classes such as yoga. He also thinks they should have effective incentive programs. He described one they had in the past in which the incentive for not taking sick leave for two consecutive quarters was a coffee mug. “It was insulting,” he recalls.

Bruce would also like to see mailbox size and shape regulations. He says that many old houses have tiny mail slots that are smaller than a lot of the mail that comes these days. “For instance, (some] houses must be 75 to 80 years old, and they’ve got these tiny little slots that you have to fold the mail to get in. Oftentimes, mailboxes have sharp edges — not razor sharp, but so thin that you’re pushing mail through a small slot, so that when it goes, your hand goes too, and you get cut and scratched on these sharp edges. That’s how I got this [cut] here (on my knuckles]. You keep hitting these places." How does Bruce like his job?

He pauses, heaves a big sigh, and finally declares, “That’s a hard one. There are certainly positive aspects to it, but I certainly wish I was doing other things a lot of the time.” He pauses again and then admits, “Okay, I’m in it for the money. I would definitely not like to be here. I feel stuck.”

As he sips his coffee in an Ocean Beach coffeehouse, Eddie Fabio complains, “There are so many petty little rules. The most important thing is supposed to be customer service.” Ed is a Philadelphia native who came to San Diego in the Navy. After his discharge, he took the clerk-and-carrier test, was hired, and discovered that he “liked walking around in the sunshine.” He is 47, single, and heavyset, with a long, dark ponytail and full beard. He seems to be in his natural habitat here in O.B. He’s been with the postal service for 17 years and delivers mail out of the Linda Vista station.

Asked for an example of a petty rule, he offers, “They won’t let me start early. I’ve asked them and asked them. I’ve told them it would save time. They won’t let me prove it to them. My route, when the gentleman before me had it, started at 6:30 a.m. With me, they say 7:00.”

Ed is a member of the letter carriers’ union. He makes about $35,500 per year base pay and gives about $19 per paycheck (every two weeks) to the union. He says the union has both helped and hurt him in the past, but he believes it to be necessary. “You need it right now, because labor and management don’t get along very well,” he explains. “Now the pay is pretty good, so people don’t think we need unions; but the thing is, you can’t do away with them, because everything is going to start going backwards,” he adds.

Ed is another carrier who believes the post office to be an over-managed company. “I think we could do a better job with less supervision,” he says. “On a normal day," he says of his station, “there are about 100 employees and five supervisors. On Saturday they do the same job with three supervisors. If we can get along with three supervisors on Saturday, why do we need five the rest of the week?”

Asked if he suffers stress or loss of sleep as a result of his job, Ed answers, “I used to, I don’t now. I can pretty well put it behind me.” But he attributes this to “experience, plus the fact 4 that I have time invested, so I really don’t have much choice.” He says, “If I was starting at the post office now, I don’t think I’d make it, I really don’t.”

In San Marcos I talk to letter carrier Nicholas Houze. “I’ve worked twice [for the post office],” Nicholas says. “I worked when I was 21, 22 for 14 months in Washington, D.C.,and I’ve worked almost 5 years in San Marcos.” Mr. Houze is a 44-year-old father of four who has dark, gray-flecked hair and bushy eyebrows. He speaks softly from an old recliner in his study, which is really a corner of the garage sectioned off by bookcases and a blanket hanging from the rafters. His time between stints with the post office was a saga of “ending up on the Street for seven years, then becoming a Christian and living six years in a Christian drug rehab, first as a patient and then in the administration of it.”

By the time that was over, he was 38. He then got married, and with a wife and three stepchildren to support, he took the first job that came along, driving a bus for the county transit authority. But needing something more substantial, and knowing he could be rehired at the post office if he took the test again, he bought a handbook, studied, took the clerk-and-carrier test, and was hired three years later. “It took a little while to get hired because I had too many traffic tickets,” he explains. For the last five years, Houze has worked as a letter carrier in San Marcos.

The postal service pays him as a 6 1/2-year employee, counting the time he put in back in the early ’70s. He grossed about $38,000 last year, working an average of 45 to 46 hours a week. Working twice, 20 years apart, has given Nicholas an interesting perspective on postal service operations.

“When I got hired [the first time], it was really lax. You delivered your mail, and if you wanted to get paid for eight hours, you had to hang around the post office. Everybody would play cards. As long as you did your job, it was cool. Because of that, I believe, they went through a period where management got really hard on the carriers and the clerks. And they were training the upcoming supervisors to be that way.

“When I got hired [the second time],” he says, “they had backed down from that hard-nosed stance, so I never experienced that." Houze could be a rarity, in that he is a postal worker who thinks the post office should be privatized. “I’m all for small government,” he says.

He is also anti-union. “I’m opposed to their politics,” he explains. “Most unions tend to be somewhat leftist. The local office and the national office were both supporters of Clinton, whom I adamantly oppose.” He is also unusual among letter carriers in that, when asked what his favorite part of the job is, he says he likes casing the mail. The standard answer is delivering it. And does he like his job? Shrugging his shoulders, he says, “Sometimes. It’s not something I want to do for years and years.”

John Knowles delivers mail in City Heights, “south of Wightman, between 35th and Cherokee,” he describes it. He has worked for the post office for two and a half years but has only been a full-time or “regular” carrier for a year. He’s been on his present route since July.

He lives in a fixer-upper house in Lemon Grove, which he bought shortly after becoming a regular carrier. He and his wife, Darcy, have three children.

Knowles is 37 and a Navy veteran originally from Chicago.

Asked if he likes his particular route, he pauses to think and answers, “It’s flat.” He says his favorite part of the job is “walking, talking with people, and seeing my customers.” He adds, “There are the welfare people you half-resent. It’s when you see a guy your age sitting on his butt collecting tons of money for it, and you realize that’s where your tax money is going.”

A change John would like to see in the postal service would be a sick-pay incentive program awarding bonuses to employees for not using any or all of the 14 sick days to which they are entitled.

“Now, the only way to get compensated is by calling in sick 14 times a year,” he says.

John feels fortunate to have his job with the post office. “I’ve got it in my mind that federal civil service is probably the best place you can be. I don’t see the federal government folding up anytime soon, and for as much as they talk about privatizing, I can’t see it right now.”

John has invited me to walk his route with him. On a surprisingly hot late-winter day, I meet John at 10:00 a.m. at a liquor store on the corner of University Avenue and 36th Street “I always come here for coffee before I start my route,” he says. “They give me a deal on it.” From the store, I follow behind his old mail Jeep, and we drive south and west a few blocks, where we park to begin the route.

“This is the hard part, getting started,” John tells me as he loads his satchel full of mail. When it’s full, we set off. Immediately I’m struck by the pace at which he’s walking. I think to myself, “He can’t keep this up all day." But after the first hour, he’s still humming along at the same quick rate, if not quicker. I can barely keep up with him, and he’s lugging 30 pounds of mail.

I also see him smash and nick his fingers, trying to stuff magazines and 20-page advertising fliers into mail slots the size of the flat side of a table knife. Because of this, his fingers have little cuts and scrapes that never heal.

After walking about a mile or so, we return to where we’ve parked. I’m hoping we’re going to take a break. But John quickly reloads the satchel, and we set off again.

Along the way, John points out subtle aspects of his job, like the way he’s holding magazines on his arm while fingering through letters in his hands to check the names and addresses. I ask whether he is looking at names or street numbers.

“Names,” he replies. “After a while, you know just about everybody’s name on the route. It’s more accurate than delivering by number, because names change, but numbers stay the same. So if I see a name that I know moved last year, I won’t deliver it. I’ll take it back to the station to be forwarded or returned."

About two hours into the route. I’m exhausted, but John seems pretty fresh, a few droplets of sweat on his forehead the only indication of any fatigue. We come to a house with a large black dog sitting unleashed on the porch, barking incessantly.

John says he didn’t bring his anti-dog pepper spray today, because the weather is pretty nice and the dogs are usually quite mellow in nice weather. “The owners told me that dog doesn’t have any teeth anyway,” he adds.

As John starts across the lawn toward the mailbox, the dog hops up, barks, trots over to him, and bites him on the calf, breaking the skin but drawing no blood. “Hey there!” John yells at the dog. “Take it easy now.” He turns to me smiling and says, “I guess he does have teeth.”

Letter carriers are required by post office policy to report all dog bites, so we make our way back to the Jeep, return to the store, and call John’s manager, who comes out to look at the wound and take a few pictures. “Okay, you’re coming in," he says. They’ll make arrangements for someone to finish his route. I go home and take a nice long nap.

"Joan," we’ll call her. She works for the postal service as a distribution and window clerk. Her job consists of “spreading the mail,” distributing the uncased mail to the proper carriers at her station and relieving the regular window clerks while they are on breaks and at lunch. As a 12-year employee, Joan’s salary last year was $35,600.

Asked if that includes overtime, Joan replies, “No, that’s the base pay. I don’t work much overtime. I’m a single parent, so I really don’t have [time] to do it.”

In addition to her regular duties, Joan is a shop steward for the American Postal Workers Union, which represents postal clerks. Joan’s union-related duties are the same as Al McGraw’s with the letter carriers’ union, but she volunteered for the position, while Al was elected. Most grievances Joan works on have to do with window clerk audits. “We have an audit every four months,” she explains, “and you have to be within $40 of what you should have, based on what’s left in your stock.” She adds, “I’ve done a lot of studying in that area, so it (her grievance work) is mostly with that."

I ask her how cooperative management is during the grievance processes. Joan hesitates and then answers, “They’re always cooperative in giving paperwork, information, and such, but they usually disagree with what the grievant is doing, so it has to go to the next step." The next step is arbitration. She works on an average of five to six grievances per year.

Asked what she would do to change the post office, Joan replies, “I would really try to teach communication skills, especially in management.” Joan says the standard response she gets from people when they learn she’s a postal worker is, predictably, “Don’t shoot!”

She tells a story about walking around town with her daughter, who was wearing a USPS jacket, and having three or four different people say, “Don’t shoot! Don’t shoot!" as they walked by. “My daughter said, ‘Why do they think people from the post office are going to shoot them?’"

Does she enjoy her job? Like Bruce, Joan pauses to think and finally admits, “I feel like I’m trapped, because I do get paid very well, but it’s not what I feel like I was cut out to do. I can support my family, but it doesn’t really give any kind of inner peace.”

Julie (not her real name) promises she has an interesting story to tell. So we meet to talk at a coffee shop in Imperial Beach. Julie works as a letter carrier, and her husband is also with the postal service. “I love my job. I love delivering the mail,” she answers enthusiastically.

And why shouldn’t she? For someone with only a high school education, $33,000 a year plus benefits and virtual tenure isn’t bad. However, Julie’s eight years with the postal service haven’t all been trouble-free. Once she arrived at work with wet hair and no makeup and was called into the manager's office. Julie says he told her she looked like she was on drugs.

She responded, “I don’t have makeup on.” He said, “Well, you’re acting hyper." She replied, “I’m always hyper." Julie is definitely animated.

Her manager wanted her to take a drug test, and she agreed, though she had a right to refuse it. She agreed, she says, “Because I knew I hadn’t been doing drugs, so I said, ‘You guys are going to eat your words!’ "

The urine test came back positive for methamphetamine. Julie can’t say for sure why. She suspects she was set up by management, a theory she supports with possible means and motives. “I can tell you right away why they want me out," she declares. “My kids and my family are more important than my Job, so at times I can be abusive on my attendance.”

She admits that they have a “legitimate complaint” against her on this account. Also, three days before being called into her manager’s office, she saw him “flirting with this other mail lady” and made a comment to him to the effect of how unfortunate it would be if his wife knew how much he “sniffed ass” at work.

Julie suspects management set her up by putting something into her soft drink can while she was away from her mail-sorting case. After the first urine test came back positive, she took two more, which both came back negative, and a hair test (which can reveal past drug use). This test also proved negative. However, management is standing by the first urine test, and as of the end of the month, Julie says, she has to check into an outpatient drug rehabilitation program or be terminated. She says she will sit through the drug rehabilitation program if that is the only way to keep her job. “The union can’t do anything, because they say the post office has a positive urine test,” she explains.

Steve Griffin, a letter carrier with a route in the Gaslamp Quarter, is a pleasant-mannered, single man of 36. He is originally from Seattle and is another postal employee who first came to San Diego while in the Navy. Asked if he likes his job at the post office, he answers confidently, “I do, I really do. For me being a mailman is a good job. I think it ’s a good company to work for.” But he adds,

“For a year, in Santa Barbara, I was a manager, and I didn’t like it at all.

“I was stuck between the people I was trying to get to work for me and people that were, as far as I’m concerned, bureaucrats. That’s why I quit being a supervisor. They (management] are very resentful when you quit being a supervisor. A lot of managers told me right out that I had been let in on knowledge that only supervisors had, and then I went back to being a carrier.

"I’m not against management. I like management. I just think there’s too much of it. There’s too much bureaucracy.”

Rick Luna works out of the North Park station as a letter carrier. He is originally from Harlingen, Texas, and is another Navy veteran and a former accountant. He has worked for the post office for six and a half years.

Rick describes his job as “the easiest job I could ever have. I get paid basically for going for a walk every day out in the sun.” His salary is about $33,000 a year. Rick was a union shop steward for two years but quit because he “got tired of baby-sitting" the same troublemakers and “non-performers” in his office. He would like to see the postal service simply get rid of those types.

It is very difficult to get fired under the Civil Service code, so I ask him how that could come about. “When I was in the Navy,” he responds, “once a year we had what they called Operation Flush. They would get rid of people who weren’t bad enough to have gotten captain’s mast or court-martialed (but] were just chronic disciplinary problems. The local commander could get rid of them, fire them, basically. I wish there was a way they could do that with us, not only for craft employees but for management as well.”

After resigning as shop steward, Luna canceled his union membership. “I was disgusted with the fact that they can’t ever reach an agreement on their negotiations,” he explains. “I really can’t see paying $40 a month for, basically, a convention fund.”

Is the union given to holding large conventions? He laughs and says, “You opened a big can of worms. Yeah, of course. I have a real problem with it. Why should we subsidize Them to go out and get drunk and have a nice time at some convention?”

Brian (not his real name) is a “day-off relief clerk," the postal clerk’s equivalent of a T-6 letter carrier. Two days a week Brian works the window serving customers, a job he describes as stressful. “I like it though,” he adds, “one or two days a week it’s okay.” The rest of the week, he is “in the back sorting mail, which is very boring.” I ask him if he prefers the boring to the stressful, and he says he does, but “those are the only two choices.”

Brian is a ten-year employee and makes $35,000 per year base salary. He is a member of the American Postal Workers Union and says, “I’ve had nothing but good experiences with the union.” If he could change things at the post office, Brian would stop Saturday operations; make work hours “more flexible, so that people could work maybe a four-day, ten-hour-per-day workweek”; and abolish forced overtime. “I just think that’s terrible,” he says. And when he tells people he’s a postal worker, “There’s usually some joke about guns," he says. “I don’t like that. It’s embarrassing.”

Brian’s favorite part of his job is the people he works with and the “friendly rivalry” between the clerks and carriers, which consists of jokes and insults sent back and forth between the two camps.

His least favorite part of the job is “the boredom,” he says. “If I didn’t have my Walkman, I’d go nuts."

When asked if he likes his job, Brian pauses, sighs, and finally admits, “Well, I don’t hate it, but it’s not deeply fulfilling either.” Maybe five on a scale of one to ten? He shrugs his shoulders and replies, “Maybe a six.” He adds, “I feel lucky to have this job because it’s so secure."

SAN DIEGO TO NEW YORK: THREE DAYS ON 32 CENTS

A letter addressed to New York City that’s dropped into one of the mailboxes downtown is collected at the next pickup time displayed on the inside of the box’s door. This used to be done by the letter carrier whose route the collection box is on. Now it is done by a postal worker whose sole task it is to drive around town in a small truck collecting mail from those boxes.

When he stops at the box with our letter in it, he opens it up and removes the plastic bin that lines the box and dumps its contents into a hamper, a cart composed of a canvas sack stretched over a wheeled, steel frame. At the end of the route, the collector brings the outgoing mail to the main processing ( center on Rancho Carmel Drive in Carmel Mountain Ranch, across I-15 from Rancho Penasquitos. There, our letter is unloaded at one of the facility's 54 docks and dumped into another hamper.

This hamper is then towed by a "mule,* a small electric vehicle, similar to a forklift, but used for towing, not lifting. The driver hauls the hamper to one of three machines called Dual Pass Rough Culling Systems. Each machine occupies about the same floor space as half of a volleyball court. These machines sort the mail roughly according to size. The first part of the system is a loader that grabs the hamper and dumps its contents into a bin, at the bottom of which is a conveyor belt. Our letter goes up the conveyor belt, and at the top. about six feet off the ground, it travels down a slide and starts up another conveyor belt. By now, the bulkier, larger pieces of mail will have been separated from the letter mail at the bottom of the conveyor, so our letter to New York is now traveling with others roughly its own size.

From the second conveyor belt, the letter goes directly into an Advanced Facer and Canceling System This machine, a little smaller than the first, arranges the letters so all the addresses face the same direction and then feeds them onto a moving track, along which the stamps are canceled. An electric eye then scans each address and sorts the letters according to how the address has been printed on the envelope. If the address is typed or neatly printed, our letter ends up in a slot with similarly addressed mail and is loaded into a hamper that is then towed or pushed about 100 yards across the workroom floor to the optical character reader area.

The processing center has nine Multi-Line Optical Character Readers They are narrow machines about four feet tall and about the length of an 18-wheeler At one end of each machine, an operator sets stacks of letters on edge, like books on a shelf, onto a six-foot metal slide, while a spring-loaded, bookend-like mechanism pushes the letters into the machine. The machine pulls them in at a rate of more than ten per second. The apparatus looks like a giant machine gun, sucking in letters as a gun would bullets Once the letter is inside the machine, an optical character reader will attempt to read the whole address and if it is successful, it will spray a bar code representing that information onto the envelope.

If a letter's destination is a high-volume center such as New York City, it is sorted into a bin with other mail to the same destination. These letters will be put in sacks or covered cardboard trays, which are loaded into large metal crates and towed by a mule to the loading dock to await the next truck to the Airport Mail Facility.

If the optical character reader cannot read the type or printing on our envelope to New York, an image of the address is sent via phone lines to one of 170 keyers at a location in Chula Vista, who read and manually keyboard the information. Meanwhile, an orange identifying bar code is sprayed on the envelope The letter will then be sorted into a reject bin and from there will be brought to another optical character reader, which reads the orange code and matches that with the corresponding information from the operators in Chula Vista. The correct black bar code is then sprayed onto the letter, and the machine sorts it into the New York City bin.

But if the address on our letter was not typed or written in neat block letters, the canceling machine would direct it into a slot with mail to be sorted by one of 12 manually operated letter-sorting machines, instead of by the optical character reader. The manual machines are about six feet long and table height At each sits a keyer who types in part of the zip code (the last three digits for incoming mail, and the first three digits for outgoing mail). The letters move past the keyers at a rate of one per second. Five people keep each machine full of mail as the keyers type After the first three digits of our letter’s zip code is typed in, the envelope is sorted into a bin with other mail destined for New York.

If the letter to New York is from a downtown business that has pre-bar coded the envelope, as some business mail is these days, the canceler system sorts it with other pre-coded mail that goes directly to a bar code reader. This scans the code and sorts the letter into the New York bin.

Beginning at around four or five o'clock every evening and ending at midnight, trucks carry mail to the Airport Mail Facility at Lindbergh Field On the same day it was brought to the processing center, our letter to New York, now in a sack or covered cardboard tray in a large metal crate, will be loaded into one of these trucks and taken to the airport, where the letter will be put on a plane bound for New York. This plane will be a private airline's, since the postal service contracts with just about every commercial airline. It also leases its own fleet of 27 aircraft. These, however, are used strictfy for express and priority mail to large metropolitan areas

When our letter arrives in New York, it’s unloaded at the airport mail facility. From there it is shipped to a central processing station similar to our Carmel Mountain Ranch facility. There, provided it had been sorted automatically back in San Diego and has a bar code on it, the letter is brought straight from the truck to a Delivery Bar Code Sorter. By reading the bar code, the machine sorts the incoming mail all the way down to the level of the individual carrier who will eventually deliver it. And the letters will be in delivery sequence. If there are letters to be delivered to the addresses on either side of the location on our letter, the machine will place our letter between them. From this processing center, our letter will be trucked to the station from which a carrier will finally deliver it.

A letter arriving in New York without a bar code is brought directly to one of the local processing centers, where an operator will type in the last three digits of the destination zip code, and the letter will be sorted with mail to go to the station from which it will be delivered After being trucked to the station, it will be sorted by mail clerks and distributed to the carrier, who delivers it.

This whole process, according to United States Postal Service standards, should take place three days from the time our letter was dropped in the downtown collection box. According to the latest Price Waterhouse survey, this standard is met 87 percent of the time, nationally. Mail from San Diego, however, meets the delivery standard 92 percent of the time. This ranks San Diego sixth best in the nation, behind Wichita. Kansas; Billings. Montana, Salt Lake City, Utah; Buffalo. New York; and Omaha. Nebraska, in that order. All these cities are smaller than San Diego.

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