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September 29, 2011

The Postal Blues

(NOTE: The following is a guest post from a reader who wishes not to be identified. Edit for format only.)

It is no secret by now that the U.S. Postal service is deep in the red and getting worse fast!

I share the feelings of surprise others have expressed. Not surprised that it is happening but surprised it has taken this long to become so chronic!

I can speak about this from personal experience. I had worked at the USPS for 4 years – 3 as a letter carrier and 1 as a supervisor – until I just couldn’t stand it anymore. (In fact, after my first two weeks working at the Post Office I bought stock in FedEx and UPS!)

First, let me set the record straight on a few things.

Pundits and commentators lump postal workers in the same category as other unionized people in terms of “generous” pay and benefits. That is simply NOT true!

“Generous” is a matter of perspective. When I started in the USPS starting pay for a letter carrier was about $16/hr. If you live in Bumble Creek, Middle America that might be considered great pay. But if you live in or near a major city like LA or New York it’s not much (about $33,000 a year gross based on 40 hours). It is true that most letter carriers and other postal workers do work a lot of overtime at time-and-a-half but even that raises your pay to only $50,000 or so. Still good for a small town but not for an urban or suburban area. And hardly “generous” in my opinion. Even among the 20-30 year veterans of the Postal Service pay is only about $60,000-$70,000 base pay, perhaps $80,000-$90,000 with generous overtime. Still not bad but not the 6-figure pay often made out to be.

And just the other day I heard a pundit on some TV show describe the Postal pension as “generous”. That’s also NOT true!

In fact, the Postal pension system is very poor by comparison to pensions in other fields like teachers. When I worked at the USPS the first thing HR told us as new hires was NOT to rely solely on the pension! They STRONGLY advised us to contribute to the Thrift Savings plan which is basically a 401k plan. And even with the pension, at the time I worked there, I contributed about 5% to my pension account (it wasn’t 100% “free”).

The medical healthcare plan, disability plan, life insurance plans, etc were decent at best. But far from “generous” and certainly NOT cheap!

Truth where truth is deserved.

But here’s also another bit of inconvenient truth:

The sheer amount of waste, inefficiency, incompetence, slothing/laziness, gross mismanagement, fraud and theft in terms of time and milking the system that I saw as both a letter carrier and a supervisor is criminal!

The employees – letter carriers and clerks – know they basically can’t be fired. So once they pass their probation period they are in for life (the saying was “He’s a 30 year mortgage”). To fire someone was a long drawn out process of reviews, arbitration, reviews, more reviews, negotiation, etc etc. Not that I wanted to see anyone lose their job. But the fear of losing your job is a good motivator.

I saw a person come to work drunk and couldn’t be fired.
I saw a person leave the office without permission and disappear for a week but couldn’t be fired.
I saw a person just not show up at work for over a month and couldn’t be contacted by phone or mail (turned out he was in rehab!) and couldn’t be fired.
I saw a person admit to taking cash from the office petty cash for personal use and not be fired.
I saw a person come to work drunk and threaten to shoot fellow employees and couldn’t be fired.
I saw a guy tell the supervisor he wasn’t coming in the next day because he was working his second job and couldn’t be fired! (Imagine that – telling your boss you’re not coming to work because you have another job to go to!)
I saw a person get injured literally 2 days after completing their probation, get a doctors’ note they can’t perform heavy work, and now had a guaranteed 40 hours a week job with benefits but could barely do any real work!
Any time some new technology or new procedure, no matter how minor, was tried to be introduced people just refused to use it or obey and they couldn’t be fired.

Just a few examples of what I saw…

If you know you can’t be fired why do a good job? Why do the right thing? Why even come to work?

Upper management didn’t support lower management. Not an uncommon complaint among lower and middle managers. But, at least in my district, the Executive-in-Charge was truly a little Napoleon! He loved to make supervisors and Postmasters squirm in meetings and on conference calls. He would think nothing of transferring a supervisor or Postmaster to an office 30-40-50 miles away from their home! He would openly call people “stupid” and “asshole” in front of a wide audience their peers. Definitely not a Dale Carnegie graduate. By the same point, jobs at the district office were granted mostly, not on merit or even seniority, but on nepotism! At least half the people in the district office, especially among the higher level positions, were related to the Executive-in-Charge by either blood or marriage! Totally unethical at a minimum, probably illegal too, in any other business but apparently not at the Post Office.

And the unions, oh boy! The unions went out of their way to protect the real slugs while turning their backs to good workers. It truly did seem that the worse you performed the more the union was there for you while those few who really tried to do a decent job and be a reliable employee were marginalized and ignored by the union (but was still happy to take their pay as dues).

I can remember when the union local rep would come in for an “update” meeting. He’d always say something like this:

“Things are bad. Sales are down. Revenue is down. Don’t expect a lot from the next round of contract negotiations. We can’t promise anything. But thank God you have a union representing you! ‘Cause as bad as it is it would be much worse if we weren’t representing you!”

WTF?! You know the saying “With friends like that who needs enemies”?

In my opinion the USPS well deserves the losses they are taking and then some. No private company, even a unionized one, would survive a month run the same way.

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