Lost in the mail – Budget cuts, Congressional meddling force local carriers to work through the night to deliver mail
A blue headlamp bobs along the sidewalk in North Redondo, weaving down driveways, in-and-out between parked cars, and across streets. The postal carrier wearing the lamp is heard opening the metal locks of mailboxes and prying free rusty hinges to deliver the day’s mail. As she walks back to her truck, the sky fades from dark blue to black. She will be walking the streets delivering mail until well after dark.
Change is afoot within the United States Postal Service, and across the nation mail carriers are carrying the brunt of this change. A combination of financial strain and the implementation of new labor-saving technology at sorting stations has resulted in fewer carriers working longer hours.
“Recently, the U.S. Postal Service went through some route adjustments,” said Richard Maher a USPS spokesperson, adding that the Redondo Beach branch is implementing a new way of sorting larger pieces of mail, like catalogues and legal-sized envelopes, in the order each carrier delivers his or her route. Called a Flats Sequencing System (FSS) and now located at the Los Angeles central USPS facility, it is an automatic, high-tech sorting system with conveyor belts and trays that sorts parcels based on size and location of each item’s destination address. (For video and more details, see USPS FSS page site.)
Since implementation, however, mail delivery to the Redondo branch from the central L.A.sorting plant has been later in the day. This, in turn, has forced carriers to start their routes later. “The machines aren’t fully functional,” said David Gordillo, vice president of the California Area American Postal Workers Union. “We are jumping ahead of ourselves.”
Gordillo attributed the late mail delivery in part to an adjustment by everyone to the new machines. With the new technology, came changes, he explained. Because of the new and, it’s assumed, more capable machines, the postal service decided to change delivery routes to be more efficient; expanding the distance the carriers travel for each routes and the number of households they deliver to while condensing the number of routes and carriers in each city. The routes went out to the letter carriers for bidding, causing the postal carriers to request certain routes based on their seniority, while many mail carriers were reassigned or their routes were adjusted, explained a source at the post office.
“Nobody’s happy with the changes,” said a mail carrier in Hermosa Beachwho asked not to be identified. “We are getting paid overtime, but some people have to work 8 a.m. until10 p.m. when usually we were done by six. Sometimes we’ll get done with a route and be assigned to pick up the slack on another.”
Residents who are no longer receiving their mail at their normal time have also expressed displeasure to postal employees.
On Curtis Avenue in Redondo Beach, residents have noticed that mail is now sometimes delivered as late as 10 p.m. and that the carrier changes from day to day. Mail on Curtis had been delivered by the same carrier for years, always during daylight hours, despite the carrier often stopping to chat with residents. Postal carriers said that they are not allowed to comment on the situation. But residents throughout Redondo Beach and Hermosa Beach, whose carriers work out of the main post office on Catalina Avenue, have seen similar late-night deliveries.
Maher said the late night deliveries are a temporary problem.
“As employees get used to routes or readjust, service will return to normal,” he said. “Customers may also receive delivery earlier than they are accustomed to, as some addresses that were previously on the end of a route may now be at the beginning. FSS allows letter carriers to begin their routes earlier in the day, spending less time in the office and more time on the street.”
“Route adjustments are a common reality,” Terry Stoller, the president of the California Local Postal Worker’s Union said. “Regardless of new machines you can’t have weeks and weeks of late delivery; even going on for more than one day is cause for serious concern. They are trying their best but they aren’t allowed the staff to do it adequately.”
In Manhattan Beach, Hermosa Beach, Redondo Beachand El Segundo, a total of 42 routes out of 170 have been eliminated, forcing the remaining carriers to work longer hours to cover the new, longer routes. In Manhattan Beach, the routes went from 38 to 29, cutting 9 and making the remaining routes longer. In Hermosa Beach, the number of routes went from 21 to 14, in El Segundo, 19 to 14. The most significant cut was in Redondo Beach, going from 92 to 71 routes, reconfiguring the remaining distances to cover the ground that was previously delivered by 21 more routes.
“We’re short staffed to begin with,” said Mike Lopez, a 61-year-old postal clerk who is 34-year employee of the USPS in Redondo Beach. “Eventually they will get more organized, but the bottom line is that they need more people, not less.”
Hiring more people means more money is needed, and currently the USPS is in a financial bind. It ended its 2011
Third quarter mail volume declined to 39.8 billion pieces, compared to 40.9 million during the third quarter of 2010. The USPS will handle an estimated 167 billion pieces of mail this fiscal year, down 22 percent from five years ago, according to USPS figures. Net losses for the nine months ending in June 30, 2011 amounted to $5.7 billion. “Even with significant cost reductions and revenue growth initiatives, current financial projections indicate the Postal Service will have a cash shortfall and will have reached its statutory borrowing limit by the end of the fiscal year,” said the release. “Absent substantial legislative change, the Postal Service will be forced to default on payments to the federal government.”
A Hermosa Beach carrier, wearing a miner’s lamp because he was delivering after dark, noted that whether or not the volume of mail decreases, carriers must still stop at every house. So even as carriers adjust to the new realities facing the USPS, the job itself is likely to have permanently changed – as has the service that customers can expect.
In August, Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe released a “Workforce Optimization” proposal that asks Congress to ignore layoff protections in USPS collective bargaining agreements and thus enable the service to cut 220,000 jobs by 2015. Up to 120,000 jobs – a fifth of the USPS workforce – would be cut this year. The plan also proposes looking at 3,700 under-utilized post offices for possible closure and introduces the new Village Post Office concept – offices owned by local businesses that would offer stamps and flat-rate packaging.
“We continue to take aggressive actions to reduce costs and bring the size of our infrastructure into alignment with reduced customer demand,” said Donahoe, said in a statement to postal workers.
A new age
Many people attribute the Postal Service’s financial woes to email. Stoller, however, says that isn’t entirely the case. Along with email and the internet came online shopping, a major source of revenue for the Postal Service. At the Redondo Beach branch, Stoller said, volume has actually increased.
“The Postal [Service] can say there is less mail volume,” said Stoller. “But that’s not true — there’s more mail [at Redondo Beach], not less.”
The major financial problem the Postal Service is facing is not declining revenues, but a law that was passed in 2006 requiring it to prefund retirement benefits. According to Robert Keller, communications director for California Congresswoman Janice Hahn, this amounts to a $5.5 billion yearly for 10 years to finance health care benefits for the next 75 years.
The Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act of 2006 (PAEA) was largely intended to give the USPS more flexibility in changing prices and launching new products in order to more quickly adapt to changing market conditions. But the law – passed by a Republican-controlled Senate and House of Representatives that was decidedly adversarial to unions – also contained the provision requiring the pre-funding of health benefits through the establishment of a trust fund. No other agency – or private sector business – has such a requirement.
The USPS has operated with a deficit every year since the law was passed. Its last profitable year was 2006. The service has lost $20 billion in those four years.
“All of the USPS losses over the past four years come from this mandate,” wrote James Parks, an AFL-CIO member who has rallied other unions to the support of postal workers. “You cannot find another organization in the world…that pre-funds 75 years of benefits over a 10-year period. And it’s not just the overpayments, it’s the opportunity costs of having to hold that much reserve capital that cannot be used when times are tough, or to invest in more attractive services. This results from a 2006 law that was one of the last time bombs of the Denny Hastert-Bill Frist Congress.”
In mid September the Postal Service lobbied Congress on an extension of this year’s payment of $5.5 billion, to allow a few months to realign its finances. The extension was granted, but the Postal Service is still struggling with how to reconfigure its finances.
“If the Postal Service was a private sector business, it would have filed for bankruptcy and utilized the reorganization process to restructure its labor agreements to reflect the new financial reality,” said Anthony Vegliante, chief human resources officer and executive vice president of the USPS, in a release in mid-August. “Wages and benefits for all employees represent nearly 80 percent of our costs. To remain solvent, we must negotiate contracts that address our total labor costs and enable us to downsize quickly to adjust toAmerica’s changing mailing needs while being fair to our customers and employees.”
The Postal Service is an independent government agency that is not funded by Congress but instead is managed like a private sector business, with two significant exceptions – by law, USPS is required to provide universal service and prevented from raising postage fees faster than inflation.
These constraints mean that the Postal Service is unable to adjust to economic realities, such as rising health care costs, by drastically cutting service or raising prices.
“While all of us have been taking great steps to reduce our costs, the health care cost is one we’re unable to address in its current model,” said Donahoe in a statement to USPS employees. A new proposal to employees asks them to consider moving away from the current Federal Employee Health Benefits Plan (FEHBP), one of the most generous federal health care plans in the nation, and move to a USPS-sponsored benefit. “By pulling this piece of our costs away from FEHBP, we’d be able to save about $500 million to $700 million a year.”
To make ends meet and keep the mail coming, the Postal Service has come up with several other options to cut costs. One option brought to Congress was to stop Saturday delivery, saving the Postal Service up to $3 billion a year. Another is to close post offices across the country.
USPS employee unions have not embraced such proposals.
“They want to close 3,000 or more facilities and 250 processing plants within next year [nationally],” said Stoller. “They are hell bent on closing facilities… that would be devastating.”
Under its current labor agreement, the Postal Service cannot lay off employees. Also, by law, the USPS is not able to declare bankruptcy, which would enable the service to void its labor contracts.
Unlike the service’s chief competitors, such as FedEx, USPS has little flexibility in operating its business.
“There was a poll taken this summer and many Americans favor reducing the number of days [of delivering] over other options of raising the price and things like that,” said Maher. “We’re capped by the rate of inflation and stuck between a rock and a hard place.”
Lines at the local post offices have been getting longer due to fewer employees. Also, the Redondo Beach administrative office – which handles lost mail claims, among other things — has been closed, creating service backlogs.
Residents are getting impatient. During a recent visit to the Redondo Beach main office, Redondo resident Riner Kaiser, waited in line for more than 10 minutes in the hopes of finding missing mail that was not delivered to his box at home, and the postal clerk was unable to located it. “I’m wondering how much of a system they really have,” said Kaiser. “If you can’t do your job, something’s got to give.”
At the Hermosa Beach post office on Pier Ave., customers have been surprised to see the doors locked and a “Closed for lunch” sign.
Postal workers are trying to make the best of a bad situation.
“They are out there with the dogs, the heat, the rain, they are on the front line,” said Lopez. “They check on old people, report crime. [To the supervisors] it’s about saving hours, not what you do.”
Maher, the USPS spokesperson, stressed that mail service should eventually return to more normal delivery hours after the current period of adjustment to route changes. He said that changes will enable to USPS to operate more efficiently.
“We have not laid off any employees during this,” said Maher. “We do have some temporary employees who are not guaranteed hours, and they may not be getting hours now. And many of our employees who are eligible to retire during these times choose to retire; they find it might behoove them to decide that it’s time to go… With fewer letter carriers our labor costs are reduced. When we find a machine that will do the work previously done by humans, that goes hand-in-hand.”
USPS was unable to provide data indicating recent changes in the number of temporary and permanent employees or how many retirements have occurred locally.
On Oct. 18, USPS announced that in 2011 it will increase letter stamps from 44 to 45 cents, increase postcard stamps by three cents and increase international mail stamps by seven cents.
“The overall average price increase is small and is needed to help address our current financial crisis,” said Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe in a release in October “We continue to take actions within our control to increase revenue in other ways and to aggressively cut costs. To return to a sound financial footing we urgently need enactment of comprehensive, long-term legislation to provide the Postal Service with a more flexible business model.”
Union leader Stoller feels that the steps being taken are not nearly enough to help the employees or customers. Currently mail is not being processed in a timely manner, forcing carriers to stay out late and supervisors, clerks and custodians to work jobs they aren’t trained for.
“The little post offices are what the people know,” said Lopez. “Their concern is, ‘Where’s my mail?’ It’s all about saving hours, not about the people. At some point if you don’t have the hours or the people, how do you serve the public?”