The Way We Work Now

Being a Mail Carrier Right Now Is Unsustainable

‘If the post office was already on fire, the pandemic threw kerosene on it’

Photo: Alexi Rosenfeld/Getty Images

The Way We Work Now is a series chronicling how people’s lives and careers have fundamentally changed because of the pandemic.

This 45-year-old anonymous mail carrier has been working for the United States Postal Service for more than 10 years. He spoke with Mai Tran about the mail delivery slowdowns this summer that sparked outcries nationwide.

If the post office was already on fire, the pandemic threw kerosene on it. We’ve always had a manpower issue. Mail delivery has been suspect — we had issues with our postmaster general making swift, drastic changes and giving us little information. The pandemic is just the most recent hindrance.

Out of over 100 employees, we’ve only had two to three cases of carriers contracting Covid, and they isolated, recovered, and have been back since then. We’ve never had a spreading event, and management has tried to keep us informed. When we case, or sort, mail, we’re inside of a bookshelf with two wings that separate us from the person to our left and right. If you’re in your case doing your job, you don’t have to worry about being in anybody’s face or breathing anybody’s germs.

Once Covid became a topic, the post office made a leave policy where, if you, a loved one, or someone in daycare or school is affected by Covid, you can take time off and get a percentage of your pay without worrying about discipline for not coming in. They have been very lenient with allowing people to take whatever precautions are necessary to adjust to the pandemic, but it led to a manpower issue. It’s a domino effect. If there are any hiccups or delays at the processing plant, it ripples down to the carriers; the more we have to wait on mail, the later we sort and the later we’ll be out.

We have 80 routes, which is rather large for a post office. If we have 10 routes and 10 people come to work, there’s no overtime. Everybody does their eight hours unless your route is naturally heavy. The number of packages from online purchases picked up during the beginning of the pandemic, but the extended hours were mainly a manpower issue. We would still have 10 routes, but only five people would show up, so we’d split up the remainder. For five or six months, the carriers were delivering a route and a half a day, which means if we come in at eight o’clock, we’re not getting off until 7 or 8:30 at night.

The customers have been very supportive, at least on my route and from what I heard from others. We had so many cheerleaders, it blew me away. I had customers making signs like “Stop sabotaging my post office” and “We’re behind the carriers.” They had kids making drawings and leaving them out. They’re also very proactive in holding the postmaster general accountable for his actions. At the main post office downtown, they had gatherings and protested for the people at the top to stop delaying and slowing down the mail.

We should be way more technology-driven than we are — the post office is stuck in the ’60s.

The post office has been run by a bunch of old guys for so long, they’ve allowed technology to pass them up, and the post office has always been playing catch up. I was a mail processing clerk at the beginning of my postal career back in 2006. In 2006, we were mandated to pay billions of dollars a year into a retirement fund, which hindered us financially, and then we had to go through the recession, the housing crash, the decline of first-class mail, and the removal of mail processing machines.

At one point, first-class mail used to take one to three days at most, and we had something called hot mail, where if a package was being delivered within the city it would take one day. About five years ago, they changed that mandate because we didn’t have enough workers, and mail volume wasn’t what it used to be. First-class was extended to three to five days, and they consolidated post offices. Offices that used to have two to three trucks leaving were reduced to one. Another recent decision was load leveling. We don’t deliver on Sundays, so Mondays are really heavy. Now, we limit the amount of mail we release on Mondays and stagger them throughout the week. Hopefully by Saturday, the volume is back to normal, and then it’s wash, rinse, and repeat.

We should be way more technology-driven than we are. The post office is stuck in the ’60s when it comes to technology. We’re recently starting to catch up with our scanners, but I wish every level of the post office would embrace a major upgrade. It would increase its efficiency and enable us to go younger with employees because a person coming out of high school or college right now is very computer savvy. Becoming a mail carrier isn’t really sexy anymore.

If the United States were a sequoia, we would be the roots that dig 10, 15, 25 feet deep in the earth. We are one of the roots of this country. We have endured for hundreds of years, and I think we’ll be around for another few hundred. As long as this country exists, the post office will exist.

writer based in new york

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