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  • Inflexible Dynamo

One Government Department That (Literally) Pulls Its Weight

Updated: May 15, 2021

I worked for the United States Postal Service for five years, as a substitute rural route carrier. During that time my colleagues and I sorted many hundreds of thousands of pieces of mail and delivered six days out of seven. I drove a little “tin box” rural postal truck, sometimes on icy or snowy roads of all grades. We delivered in the dark, in the rain, and yes, fulfilled the mandate we've all heard before: "Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds."

Sounds corny, right? It isn't. It's true—every word.

An easy day for one of my routes consisted of me arriving at 6:30 a.m. to my cage. The cage is a four-foot by four-foot three-sided system of shelves starting at waist height and divided up into hundreds of small vertical slots, one for every mailbox. My last route (an average one; some were easier and some had way more addresses) had 509 individual boxes. That meant 509 slots in my cage.

I’d sort magazines first. They come in plastic-wrapped bundles, sometimes up to twenty bundles a day, each bundle containing anywhere from 10 to 50 magazines. These I’d “taco”—fold them like a horseshoe, open end up. Successive magazines for each address are inserted into the first magazines likewise. Then comes the first class mail: trays of letter-sized mail, sorted by address and route progression. The letters are arranged to follow the prescribed driving route, so sorting them is easy.

Then come the packages—everything from small plastic envelopes to boxes that can fit in your pocket to shoebox-size boxes to appliances the size of a small human being. The loads vary daily.

Then we “pull” the mail, several addresses at a time, rubber band them, and arrange them into trays in order of delivery.

This part of the job took me two-and-a-half to four hours (of course, every route is different and every day varies).

Then your postal carriers load all the mail and all the packages into our trucks and move out. Without mishaps and depending on weather and traffic condition, a delivery route in my district takes three to five hours.

But we are not paid by the hour. Every route is gauged by number of addresses/boxes and amount of mail. My last route, with 509 boxes, put 47.5 miles on the tin box; some algorithm determined that sorting and delivery on this route should take an average of 7.17 hours per day. I’d earlier had another route that almost doubled that number of boxes, and another that stretched for 80 miles including many unpaved, steep, winding hills with houses a mile or more apart. The alloted time for that route was 8.4 hours.

Carriers are expected to fulfill our job obligations in the time allotted. If we do, great. If we don’t, we don’t get paid for the extra time. But we are required to deliver every single piece of mail every day.

Working conditions at my post offices were above average. Two of my favorite bosses were the postmasters for the smaller offices I worked for in Spencer/Van Etten and Brooktondale, both in central New York State. These bosses were fair, helpful, reasonable, and understood the challenges we faced. Their support for employees was exemplary. Both were women, by the way.

Good carriers who have worked their route for some time get to know the people on their routes. Change-of-address forms let them know when cousin Betty has come to live with Ed and Nancy, so they add her name to their list. They also know when Doris and Wilbur have separated and Wilbur’s mail now gets delivered across town to 113 Doghouse Lane. We know who picks up their mail every day and who lets it sit for weeks. We also know which boxes really need repair. We know where each household wants its packages placed. We know who is disabled and needs extra effort to be able to get their meds when delivered. We know who has dogs, too. I've never been bothered by dogs. Most often they were the highlights of my route. Having three Saint Bernards at one address run up to tell me they loved me every day was a joy.

Most of my days on the job were made for driving country roads; when it was sunny and warm, or even cloudy and brisk, it was a pleasure just to be outside. I loved it, and generally couldn't wait to get the truck on those country roads, and I still miss it.

The winter holiday season, however, was an absolute nightmare. That’s a given for U.S.P.S. employees, especially in the northern part of the country. The cold was the least of the worries; most trucks had great heaters. Mail carriers drive with the large window down for nearly all of the ride. Bad weather, and I mean anything more than mild precipitation, was enough of a challenge. People who live in snow belts know how difficult slushy and icy roads can be. We spend a lot of time gauging the road conditions, trying not to slide off the road itself and simply make it through the day without an incident.

But between Thanksgiving and New Year’s, the amount of first class mail doubles (at least) and packages triple (at least). Plus, daylight is gone by 4:00 p.m., meaning we drive and deliver the last part of our routes in the dark. But people need their packages and mail! Every carrier I have ever worked with made sure that their routes were done without fail. For most it’s a matter of personal pride.

And yet, rarely did I hear a complaint from my co-workers. Everyone just buckled down and got the job done. Every single day. Based on weather and road conditions, if we judged that the delivery to a certain box was too risky, we’d skip that box and deliver the mail at the next accessible opportunity. We’re dedicated but not suicidal.

And we do this nearly every day of the year. And for some of us—the substitutes--it is nearly every day of the year, because that includes Sundays, when our trucks are filled with Amazon packages—and nothing else. Those get delivered on Sunday, according to contract. I had an average of 110 packages every Sunday. 100-plus stops. I worked nearly every Sunday, making my work week most often seven days a week.

The Post Office gets it done, every single day, and better than any other package carrier.

The Post Office has historically been run very well, supporting itself without benefit of public funds. It made its own money via its simple and highly effective business model. Your tax dollars may go to many places...police, fire, senatorial junkets to Monte Carlo, but the only way you've ever supported the Post Office was by buying postage.

And now the Trump government wants to destroy the United States Postal Service by denying it the funds it needs to keep itself going. Think about that. The Post Office has been around longer than the United States—for nearly three-and-a-half centuries, since 1672. Back then they delivered stamp-less letters. Today, for half a dollar your letter will go anywhere in the United States.

Allow me to quote Wikipedia (italics and boldface mine): “The United States Postal Service employs 633,188 workers, making it the third-largest civilian employer in the United States behind the federal government and Walmart. In a 2006 U.S. Supreme Court decision, the Court noted: "Each day, according to the Government's submissions here, the United States Postal Service delivers some 660 million pieces of mail to as many as 142 million delivery points." As of 2017, the USPS operates 30,825 post offices and locations in the U.S., and delivers 149.5 billion pieces of mail annually.

If you want to support a worthwhile institution and do something for your country, buy stamps. Skip those other high-priced delivery services and send things by the Post Office. Finding an efficiently working governmental office is not easy; this remarkable one is a tradition we cannot afford to lose.

Trump is trying to destroy the United States Postal Service for at least two reasons: to privatize it and turn it over to his robber baron buddies to run so they can squeeze out more profits for themselves. And also—and most importantly—to keep voting by mail from becoming a regular and viable method of vote-casting. Trump and his ilk would like nothing better than to see the democratic voting process crippled, or at least manipulated to their best interests. In this administration nothing is sacred and everything is up for sale. If there's a way to make a buck on parts of the near-corpse of the U.S., they'll try to sell it. We cannot let this happen.

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