Category Archives: Work

Part Four: Too Busy to be the Public?

This post is part of my series Keeping the Faith: Fostering Engaged Citizenship in the US.

Jefferson County, Colorado, where I live, is having a virtual public ‘meeting’ about changes to one of the main drags through my town. They’ve done some work trying to promote it, sending postcards to impacted neighborhoods, making a few announcements on social media, and using the mobile traffic message signs (points for creativity). There is a YouTube video outlining two proposals, one that our community can afford, and one that we can’t. The public can give feedback via Survey Monkey. Because these are preliminary proposals, there isn’t much detailed information on the environmental impacts. The residents most impacted may or may not be tech-savvy enough to comment. I found out about this on Monday, and the window for input closes on the 29th.  

If you’re an Evergreen resident, and you’re reading this, you should probably watch this sooner rather than later.

Why does it feel like this decision is already made?  

The county is also currently accepting applications to engage in government by being on one of its many volunteer boards and commissions. These boards and committees handle essential stuff: the Jefferson Center for Mental Health board, the board of health, the housing authority board, the open space advisory committee. Twenty-two boards and commissions are looking to fill 63 plus positions.  

One of the questions on the application reads: 

“By clicking the box marked ‘Yes’ I acknowledge that I have read and understand the duties and functions of the board or commission, including the duties and obligations of persons serving as a member of this board or commission, and that the board or commission may, at times, require several hours per week outside normally scheduled meetings and hearings to perform site visits, review staff reports, attend programs, workshops, or training.”

There are unusual people who, after a long day at work and potentially a long commute, a second job, or kid’s activities, are raring to go to a meeting, hearing, or site visit. They can muster enthusiasm for reviewing staff reports and attending programs, workshops, and training. But let’s be honest. That isn’t most of us.  

A woman juggles items symbolic of things that keep her busy, a clock, children's shoes, a phone, money, a house, a weight, a bottle, etc.  The public is very busy.
Holding government accountable sounds great, until we remember our lives feel like this. Image via Adobe Stock.

Civic involvement is a tough sell.  

W.B. Yeats said that “The best lack all conviction, while the worst/ Are full of passionate intensity,” in his apocalyptic poem that seems more and more suited to 2020. I don’t want to badmouth the people involved in local boards and commissions or attending public hearings. For one thing, not doing those things myself, I don’t have the right to talk. But it should hardly surprise us that often the most vehement are the loudest, or indeed only, voices representing public opinion.  

My dad, who is a civil engineer, has many stories about how ill-informed (and sometimes absurd) the debate is at the many public meetings he has attended. My favorite is the woman who fiercely opposed paving a park parking lot because her dog preferred walking on dirt. Mind you, they were talking about the parking lot, not the trails. There are valid reasons to oppose paving a parking lot. That isn’t one of them.

The Commission on the Practice of Democratic Citizenship outlines four recommendations for ensuring the responsiveness of political institutions, which is the general purpose of public meetings and voluntary board positions. Apparently, new meeting formats can help expand participation and minimize the domination of well-organized groups and deterioration into gripe-fests so common in public meetings.  

A white goose is shown on a field of green grass.  She appears to be complaining.  Some people just come to public to complain.
Sometimes, people only show up to complain. Image courtesy pixabay.com user Didgeman / 2376 images .

The commission recommends expanding their adoption and leaving real room for public input instead of making the decisions and having the meetings only for show. They also suggest expanding the information available about local government issues, including adding translated summaries of meetings where appropriate; making sure to announce meetings well ahead of time; and scheduling them when most people can attend.  

And that’s all within Recommendation 3.1: Adopt formats, processes, and technologies that are designed to encourage widespread participation by residents in official public hearings and meetings at local and state levels.

The commission recommends having members of congress engage with a random sampling of their constituents to have an informed and substantive conversation about policy at least quarterly (3.2). Participants would have the chance to interact personally with their representative. This sounds like governance by focus group.  Focus groups are of debatable value in the era of big data, but they are still prevalent in the marketing industry. Given that it seems we currently have governance by a combination of special interests and polls, focus groups could hardly do worse.  

There is no way for someone to represent nearly 750,000 constituents fully. Focus groups may be susceptible to groupthink, often dominated by the most outgoing, and have too small a sample size to garner valid data. Still, I would feel better if my congressperson had to talk to real people every so often.  

If one congressional representative can’t engage with even a substantial sample of their constituents, what are the odds of 435 Representatives meaningfully interacting with all 328.2 million of us? In an expanded version of the focus group idea, the commission recommends Citizen’s Assemblies on issues of national import (5.3). There have been many models of this used in WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Democratic) countries just this century. The UK has one going on climate change, and Iceland used a version to set its course after its financial crisis, to name two instances. The system has been used with large enough samples of random citizens to even out some of the individual influence in smaller groups.  

A very large conference room full of randomly selected members of the public is shown.  These citizens are helping to guide the future of Iceland.
A large, randomly selected sample of citizens from across Iceland come together for a day-long discussion. Their discussion informed the National Assembly when it generated overriding principles for a new constitution after the financial crisis. Then around thirty citizens, not formally affiliated with any party, and generally not politicians, were elected to be part of the Constitutional Assembly that drafted the new constitution. Image and explanation courtesy of Flickr.com user Matito.

Finally, the commission recommends implementing similar systems at the state and local level, including approaches like Citizens’ JuriesParticipatory BudgetingDeliberative PollingDialogue to Change, and Citizens’ Initiative Review. All of these approaches have been used successfully in parts of the US or other countries.  

These sound like great ideas, but the commission fails to address what I see as the number one barrier to civic engagement (and thus responsive government) in the US.  

We’re exhausted.  

I was surprised to find that on the whole, we have slightly more leisure time on average than we did in the ’60s. In theory, we should be as well-rested, as ready to engage, as excited to join the PTA, a bowling league, and our civic organizations as that generation. Maybe even more so, since we now have even more theoretically time-saving gadgetry at our disposal, and extensive online networks to help us find other civically-minded people.  

So what gives? I don’t have the resources to test my hypotheses, but here are some ideas about the situation.  

  • The American Time Use Survey, conducted by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, relies on self-reporting. I posit that human memory (even recent memory, like yesterday) is a very fallible way to gather this data.  
  • Most women work now. How could that but leave less time for adulting?  
  • As of July 2019, 71% of all nonfarm payroll employees work in private service-providing industries. In 1962, it was 59.1%. Note that the 2019 figure doesn’t include public service-providing jobs. I assert that service jobs, where an employee has to be “on” all day, providing a bright and cheerful demeanor and good customer service, are socially exhausting. It is only the very extroverted who wish to engage with other people after a long day giving excellent customer service.  

If we want a more responsive government, and we really should, we have to figure out why we are all so tired all the time. It will do us no good to implement all four of the commission’s fine recommendations, from the national to the local, if no one will show up.  

What Will it Be Like?

I used to work in low-income senior apartment buildings. In addition to my duties as a landlord, I got to do some fun activities. Our local public transportation agency had a program where they would provide a bus if you had enough interested seniors, and take them to the museum, an afternoon jazz show, a tour of the local tea factory, a trip to the Italian restaurant with the seemingly endless buffet, and the like.

T-Rex skeleton at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science.
The Denver Museum of Nature and Science is one of the destinations of the RTD Senior-Ride program. ©clmcdermid

Seniors in low-income communities have typically been through a lot in their lifetimes, and they are still living under the grinding, relentless trauma of poverty. Many were hesitant to spend even the reduced rate bus fair and activity costs. They were worried about spending money on something they might not enjoy. They asked me, over and over, what will it be like?

My mind keeps returning to that plaintive question now. What will it be like has become the question on everyone’s mind. It haunts our national discussions, our private lives, and our dreams. What will it be like when the second wave hits? What will it be like if/when I have to go back to work? What will it be like to find work to go back to? What will it be like to live during an economic depression?

Unfortunately, no one can answer these questions, and we don’t have the option of not finding out.

I’ve written before about tolerating ambiguity as an important life skill that we are all learning and relearning together. Since then, the ambiguity has only grown. Can we open up safely? Can we address the staggering life and death iniquities faced by people of color in modern America? Will another documented instance of shocking police brutality, this time overtly murderous, finally lead to meaningful change? Will there be more legislation to help the states and individuals? Will they extend unemployment?

A painting of French and English troops fighting at the Battle of Waterloo.  Officers on horseback are in the foreground, and troops in formation are in the background.  One officer is in the process of falling off a black horse.
The Battle of Waterloo, by Thomas Jones Barker. Public domain, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

We aren’t used to this anymore. In 1815, it took news of the Battle of Waterloo four days to travel to London, a distance that can now be covered in about five hours by car. The whole continent was holding its breath. Now we get our information in near real-time. We never have to hold our breath for very long. And our forecasting in a variety of fields has become so sophisticated that we’re downright affronted if we don’t know about a storm ten days in advance. Forecasts in politics and economics are often inaccurate, but having constant access to them makes us feel better.

We no longer know what to do with ourselves when even the experts are careful to tell us that they don’t know what is going to happen. We’ve never lived through such a slow-moving crisis before. The repercussions of changes in policy now, as the country is opening back up, won’t be seen for weeks, even a month.

It’s hard to think of times in modern life when the question of what will it be like has been so central. I think about my nieces when they made the big leap from elementary school into middle school. And I think about that right of passage for Americans lucky enough to have the classic college experience. Moving into a dorm for the first time is still fraught with uncertainty, no matter that the campus has been toured and you’ve gotten to know other freshmen online.

But those are personal transitions and tell us little about something we are experiencing together as a society. I asked my parents, 80 and 81, about the uncertainties of the history they have lived through. My mother remembers an armed flight my father took to an unknown destination (it turned out to be Laos) while he was in the Marine Corps and things were heating up in Southeast Asia. Dad talked about the tension of the Cuban Missile Crisis.

A black and white cartoon turtle looks in alarm as a cheeky monkey hangs from a tree, holding out a stick from which is dangling a lit stick of TNT.
Bert the turtle knows how to duck and cover. Do you? Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

And maybe that can help to pinpoint something we are missing, now. Even my oldest siblings were far too young to duck and cover, but I have always marveled at how schools, parents, and children took the practice seriously. The unparalleled power of a nuclear blast was well known by then. The dangers of radiation were well established. How could otherwise intelligent people convince themselves that a school desk would protect them?

But what duck and cover did was to provide a veneer of control to protect teachers and students from their horrifying powerlessness. It was meant to protect the mental health of kids and adults, more than their persons. The feeling that you are doing something to protect yourself, no matter how farfetched, is crucial to the psyche.

That need for a self-protective ritual is manifesting itself in many ways. For some, the mask has become a talisman to protect from illness, despite most of its efficacy being in stopping the wearer from spreading germs. For others, not wearing a mask has become a sort of rain dance for the return to the old normal. An alarming amount of people believe that rejecting vaccines will protect them.

In this, the reckoning for allowing a vacuum of leadership to form in the country, everyone turns to their own magical thinking. If I disinfect my groceries, it can’t happen to me. If I microwave the mail I will be safe. It can’t hurt me if I have enough toilet paper.

Prince Charles in front of a projected map of the UK with temperatures superimposed on it, delivering a weather forecast.
Weather forecasting has become so sophisticated, even royalty can do it. Image courtesy of user Dunk on Flikr.

And perhaps some of that is a good thing. Rituals like wearing a mask, washing your hands obsessively, and keeping your distance can serve the dual purpose of making us feel a little more in control and having a public health benefit. Other practices, like my weird fixation on being sure to have a full tank of gas as often as possible (yeah, I know) are irrational, but harmless. And of course, some of these superstitions range from merely dangerous to outright malevolent.

Our own personal rain dances say a lot about us. We should choose them with care.

And of course, we have to reckon with the fact that any and all of those rituals don’t make us really safe (though hand-washing and distance are a great start.) Certainly, none of them can rescue us from the uncertainties that haunt us. So far the only answer to the question what will it be like has been that it will be like not knowing.

National Service

WPA poster, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Today, watching a back episode of Amanpour and Co., I heard Mark Cuban call for National Service. The idea gets kicked around. Pete Buttigieg, a Navy vet, rolled out a whole plan, along with Kirsten Gillibrand, and some more obscure Democratic candidates. Clinton called for an expansion of AmeriCorps in 2016, as did Obama in 2008. A quick scan of Biden’s website shows him proposing $10,000 in student debt relief for every year spent in national or community service.

Now, of course, as Cuban points out when he talks about unions in the above clip, things have changed. National service seems less like a squishy, feel good, liberal sort of program, and more like something that could save the country.

During the Great Depression, FDR launched the Civilian Conservation Corps. In its heyday in 1935, more than 500,000 young men were enrolled, doing things like building roads, airstrips, trails, and campsites; controlling erosion and flooding; fighting fire; planting trees and shrubs; improving streams; and providing disaster relief. In a Gallup poll in 1936, 82% of respondents were in favor of the CCC. That number included 92% of the Democrats and 67% of the Republicans. That’s pretty broad bipartisan support.

The CCC’s big brother, the Work Progress Administration, employed 8.5 million people between 1935 and 1943. That’s about 6.6% of the population. Its aim was to provide breadwinners with jobs. WPA workers built streets and roads, the entrance to the Brooklyn Bridge, the dams and waterworks of the Tennessee Valley Authority, and Camp David, among other things.

WPA workers paving Moss Street in New Orleans. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

It was World War II that finally led to economic recovery for the States, but it is worth asking how much the post-war boomtimes were fueled by the great infrastructure the country enjoyed.

We sure could use 8.5 million people working on our roads now. About 32% of urban roads and 14% of rural roads are in poor condition. Our battered and worn infrastructure is a real problem for our economy. It is a concern of companies deciding where to locate, not to mention a hindrance to commerce and a time vortex for individuals.

And we don’t just need to fix what we have. We need to add broadband capacity for everyone, more bike lanes and public transportation options, renewable power generation projects, charging stations for electric vehicles, and some potentially staggeringly large water projects if we want the West to remain habitable. We also badly need to build more levees, straight-up move some communities, and mitigate for wildfires throughout the West, and, apparently, Florida.

WPA bridge. Courtesy National Archives.

Experience keeps teaching us that infrastructure is an essential investment, not wasteful spending. In New Orleans, the levees failed, in Minnesota, the bridge collapsed, in the Northeast, the power went out, and it takes a freight train between 26 to 30 hours to get through Chicago. Maybe that’s why nobody could get toilet paper.

It is a lesson we seem hell bent on not learning. But it’s time we stopped pretending that you don’t have to spend money to make money.

In addition to beginning to fix our ongoing neglect-made infrastructure disaster and providing incomes for breadwinners, national service would put kids from my high-income, low-diversity town shoulder to shoulder with kids from a huge range of backgrounds. Gap years are becoming more popular in the US, but not everyone can afford to take a year to explore. Hell, a lot of people can’t afford college in the first place. National service creates a gap year opportunity for everyone, feeding colleges and workplaces a more experienced and worldly graduate.

CCC enrollees planting willow sprouts. Image courtesy National Archives.

And national service doesn’t have to just be about infrastructure. Childcare is a huge problem in the US, especially in low-income communities. Social workers, addiction counselors, school teachers, safety-net hospitals — they’re all desperate for help. We could bring back the candy-striper! And, of course, in the immediate term, there is all that contact tracing and testing to be done.

These things, too, are investments that benefit our economy, if, perhaps, less directly.

In April, the US lost 20.5 million jobs and the unemployment rate was 14.7%. To get to the 6.6% of the population employed by the WPA, we would need to hire 21.6 million Americans over the course of the next 8 years, if my math is right. Going the route of a mandatory or at least strongly encouraged program for young people would be a vast project. Getting to CCC numbers and limiting the program to youth would be a lot easier, especially with many service corps still existing in various states and regions. But it would still be a huge undertaking.

Sometimes huge undertakings have a huge payoff.

Red Rocks Amphitheater, a WPA/CCC project still in use. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

We’re still using roads, dams, campgrounds, and other infrastructure built by the CCC and the WPA more than 75 years later. These programs got the nation to work, and allowed us to go into World War II ready to fight, despite the hard times. It is impossible to calculate the economic benefit of all those projects over all these years, but it must be substantial.

The post-war years saw booming growth and creation of what we think of as the middle class in this country. At a time when both our infrastructure and our middle class are collapsing, national service is an idea whose time has come ’round, again.

Day Forty-Three: The Economy

I mentioned I have been re-reading Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens. Like many, he writes about what makes us Homo sapiens so special. Why are we the dominant organism on the planet, and not lions, or wolves, or bears, or any number of other species that could eat us up in a few big bites?

His theory is that our secret ingredient is the ability to collectively believe in things that have no concrete reality. We started off with the gods, ghosts, and spirits. Whatever your take on God, you’d have a hard time actually, literally, physically pointing at him/her/ze/them (depending on your religion). Religion is, by definition, an act of faith. You might be able to point to something that you see as God’s or The Gods’ work in the world, but you can’t point to a physical manifestation. Maybe your prophets could, maybe you will be able to in the afterlife, but for now, it’s faith.

It’s not just God/Gods. We humans believe in lots of things that aren’t literally, physically there. We believe that our money has value beyond the paper it is printed on or the ones and zeros that represent it (at least I hope we still do!) We believe that the other side of Niagara Falls is somehow, magically Canada, even though it looks the same as this side. We believe in capitalism, communism, socialism, or whateverism.

There is no Canada. Don’t tell Justin.

That doesn’t mean that these ideas we all believe in aren’t real. It just means that they aren’t nouns in the literal sense. They aren’t people, places, or things. I can point to Cuba. I can’t point to communism. I can eat a banana. I can’t eat a ten-dollar bill, but it is somehow more valuable than the banana.

Patriotism, capitalism, communism, socialism, the value of money, God, The Gods, and Canada have real, concrete, literal consequences. Consequences that have enabled a fleshy ape with weak teeth and nails to dominate the planet. And consequences that have, on many occasions, been disastrous for individual (or large groups of) apes, not to mention other species.

All this has got me thinking about the economy. It’s another one of those things you can’t point to, but it sure does have real-world consequences! It is an idea, an act of collective imagination that allows us to cooperate on a staggering scale.

Right now, we are all watching helplessly as it tanks.

If you do a google image search for “economy,” it gives you lots of images like this, but no photos. Image courtesy of Pixabay.

But ultimately, the economy is just a consensus. It is only as good or as bad as we collectively think it is. If investors have a sunny outlook, the stock market goes up. If businesses feel good about their chances, employment goes up. The degree to which such an important idea is based on the collective subjective is a bit gobsmacking, if you think about it too much.

Except it is time to think about it too much, and be gobsmacked.

We humans are great hackers. We hack our computer networks, we hack adulting, and since at least William James, we have been deliberately learning to hack ourselves. If, as a species, we can hack one big collective idea, elections, using Facebook, propaganda, and misinformation, shouldn’t we be able to hack the economy? Can’t we use Facebook and propaganda (which, after all, is just advertising), if not the misinformation, to collectively imagine our way out of this mess?

The economy is only as bad as everyone thinks it is.

Signing off. Take Care, and Take Care of one another.

Day Twenty-Nine: Essential

Nice work, if you can get it. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

I read an article today from FastCompany about all the permanent changes we can expect to see coming out of this. The bulk of it was about how more people would work from home, with a few interviewees selling their different products or industries. Granted, the publication is FastCompany. It’s not exactly your go-to magazine for how the other (not rich) half lives. But the executives featured seemed to have no inkling of the reality for the millions of Americans who don’t work in the corporate world.

In the mean time, the Atlantic published this scathing letter from a Trader Joe’s employee.

Cashiers and shelf-stockers and delivery-truck drivers aren’t heroes. They’re victims. To call them heroes is to justify their exploitation. By praising the blue-collar worker’s public service, the progressive consumer is assuaged of her cognitive dissonance. When the world isn’t falling apart, we know the view of us is usually as faceless, throwaway citizens. The wealthy CEO telling his thousands of employees that they are vital, brave, and noble is a manipulative strategy to keep them churning out profits.

I want to know what kinds of changes the people on the lower rungs of the economic ladder are going to see in the aftermath. More people working from home is great, but it isn’t an option in a lot of sectors.

If this experience has suddenly made us aware of the vital nature of jobs in the grocery supply chain all the way through to the cashier, can we still justify their low pay and lousy benefits? Can we continue to treat our delivery drivers, gig workers, and public transportation workers as “faceless, throwaway citizens”?

Image courtesy of slideshare.net.

How is it that a liberal capitalist economy pays people in essential work so poorly, anyway? Isn’t that backward? Shouldn’t we, as a society, value first what is necessary? How did we wind up with an economy that is like an inverted version of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs?

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the annual mean wage for a childcare worker in May of 2019 was $25,510. Farmworkers and Laborers, Crop, Nursery, and Greenhouse were better off at $27,780. Meat, Poultry, and Fish Cutters and Trimmers made $28,810, while Food Processing Workers, All Other got $28,820. Slaughterers and Meat Packers, Ambulance Drivers and Attendants, Except Emergency Medical Technicians, Bakers, Stockers and Order Fillers, and Farmworkers, Farm, Ranch, and Aquacultural Animals all made less than $30,000 per year on the mean.

On the other end of the spectrum, Advertising, Marketing, Promotions, Public Relations, and Sales Managers earned a mean of $143,330, and Personal Service Managers, All Other; Entertainment and Recreation Managers, Except Gambling; and Managers, All Other got $118,710 on the mean.

It’s an interesting chart to look at. I have to admit, I cherrypicked to make my point. Recreation workers are paid poorly, which, it can be argued, makes sense, given that recreation beyond exercise is not a necessity (or at least isn’t generally thought of as such). Doctors are highly paid and are essential.

But the point stands. This crisis has opened our eyes about what jobs are really essential. It’s great that more people in the corporate environment will get to work from home in the world to come. But please don’t tell me we aren’t also going to make some changes for our genuinely, actually, factually essential workforce.

Signing off. Take Care and Take Care of one another.

Sorry, Evergreen, I’m Not Going to Deliver Your Mail

Evergreen is like the wild west of mailboxes.

It’s 10:30 PM on a Wednesday.  I drive up to the bank of mailboxes, some of them are dented into modern art.  I wonder again, what is going on in Evergreen that is so hard on mailboxes?  Are the elk attacking them?  A group of elk is called a gang, after all, and they are the hoodlums of the ungulate world.  In reality, I think it’s the plows kicking up rocks and ice chunks.  I don’t know what else it could be. 

I pull out a rubber-banded bundle of mail, shove my giant, clunky blue scanner into my pocket, hitching up my trousers as I head for the first box.  Some of the boxes are so distorted it is a struggle to get them open.  Some are so full it is a struggle to get the mail into them.  Some of them are obnoxiously small slots, making it almost impossible to fit even the smallest parcel into them.  As I go, I scan any small parcels that are bundled with the mail.  Beep, enter, delivered, enter, in/at mailbox, enter, 80439, enter.  When I come to a thin blue or yellow plastic parcel marker, I leave that mailbox open so I won’t forget. 

This UK style Post Box is adorable, but you really can’t fit much in that slot.

“Hey,” a voice shouts from the darkness. 

Startled, I shout back “Hello?”  There is no response, but I can sense that someone is in one of the pitch-dark yards a little way up the slope from me.  They’re watching. 

There are a lot of mailboxes here, and I have to make several trips back and forth to my car, an island of warmth as the breeze picks up.  The scanner is pulling at my trousers, and I hitch them up again before fishing around for the parcels.  Two are Amazon’s blue and white envelopes and one is a small box.  The last one is a bigger box, but it should still fit in the mailbox.  Whew. 

I head back towards the mailboxes. 

“Hey, what are you doing?”  This time the voice sounds aggressive.  Even though I knew they were watching me, I’m still so startled I almost drop the parcels. 

“Delivering the mail,” I answer.  Then, because it is 10:45 at night, and I’m tired, and every day seems to be longer than the last, I add “worst job ever.”  

Really, Evergreen?

My interrogator doesn’t respond, but I’m pretty sure they are still watching.  They aren’t the first one to yell at me out of the darkness tonight, thinking I’m up to no good.  I scan and deliver the envelopes, and the small box, but when I come to the mailbox for the slightly larger box, which is still easily mailbox-sized, it turns out to be a locking box.  The slot is barely big enough to fit the obnoxiously bulky catalogs that Uline sends out constantly, let alone a box. 

I’m not sure what to do. 

I’m now supposed to deliver this package to the front door or porch.  It’s creeping towards 11pm, and with these banks of mailboxes, the house could be down any number of roads.  It may or may not have a visible house number.  The driveway may or may not be reasonable.  I’ve already had two people yelling at me in the darkness.  Having someone pull into your driveway at this hour is freaky.  And I’ve been delivering Evergreen’s mail.  I only suspected before, but now I know, this town is armed! 

I’m not going to deliver this package. 

But I’ve been getting conflicting messages.  Previously, I had been told that in such circumstances, I should scan the package as attempted, no access.  This seems reasonable to me at 11pm.  But Evergreen is sick and tired of getting messages from the tracking service that there was no access, when the weather has warmed, and their driveways are no longer ice chutes.  This morning we were told, in no uncertain terms, that scanning something no access without actually pulling up the driveway was verboten.  We need to send the Postmaster a photo of the conditions that preclude access – the gate or snow or mud.  And it has been drilled into me that every parcel must be scanned as something.  I’m not allowed to leave it at the mailbox, so I can’t scan it that way. 

Some Evergreen residents have given up and gotten a P.O. Box.

It’s kind of the last straw.  I feel an enormous sense of relief as I give myself permission to stop doing this.  I tried.  I genuinely tried.  It’s just a few days shy of a month and half.  The shortest days have been 11 or 12 hours, and if they were all like that, I might stick with it, even though I have a dependent.  But lately, some of folks pitching in from other post offices have been called back to their branch.  Every day seems to be at least 15 hours, and on this particular day, I have been going for 16 hours without a break (I’m entitled to 30 minutes of unpaid break time throughout the day, but taking those breaks just means getting home even later).  I am famished, I am dehydrated, and like so many before me at the Evergreen Post Office, I am just done. 

I finish the route, of course.  There isn’t much left.  I get back to the Postal Annex at 11:30, home by midnight.  I started at 7am, making this is 16.5 hour workday.  I haven’t totally decided what to do yet.  I set my alarms with every intention of giving notice.  One of them is 120 decibels.  Another is 90. 

In the morning, I sleep through both of these.  I do something I have never done before, never thought I was the kind of person who would.  I break up with the post office by text message.  I don’t even have the courage to call my supervisor and tell her over the phone that I won’t be coming in. 

It feels terrible.  I wasn’t raised this way.  I think of myself as a responsible person with a good work ethic.  I don’t walk out on jobs.  If I have concerns, I address them through channels.  I’m willing to work hard, and pitch in when things are tough.  If I quit, I give two weeks’ notice at a minimum. 

But I just don’t have this in me.  The first several times I got too fatigued to feel like a safe driver, I forced the issue, called my supervisor and essentially made her allow me to come back in, done or not.  But the pressure was on.  It put her in a fix, it made the next day even worse for me, and other people were still out doing their job. 

In training, USPS talks about safety relentlessly.  But it’s lip service.  I make that accusation because all the incentives are perverse.  If you take the extra two seconds to buckle up every time you have had to unbuckle, you can’t do your route in the time allotted.  If you call it a day when you recognize that your driving is starting to deteriorate, you’re slammed the next day, and feel terribly guilty, because now those packages aren’t going to make their free two-day delivery guarantee, and the post office is going to catch more flack.  If you’re on a route where you take your own vehicle, and you drive it correctly, stopping and getting out at every mailbox, you’ll be out until midnight. 

Of course, I was out until midnight anyway.  Imagine how late it would have been if I hadn’t been driving the route backwards, on the wrong side of the road, so I could deliver out my window. 

Mind you, I never had any official instructions to do it this way.  The last couple days I was there, in fact, my supervisor had a post office vehicle available and encouraged me to take it.  But the workhorse of post office vehicles, which is what she was offering, is the LLV, or Long-Life Vehicle.  I heard somewhere during training that they stopped making them in ’94.  They aren’t kidding about the long-life part. 

The workhorse of USPS.

The problem is, they were designed with 80’s safety technology.  There are no crumple zones, there are no airbags, the seat belts don’t fit right, and I’m not sure how it is possible to engineer in that many blind spots.  And, of course, they’re just old.  They barely make it up hills, the engine noise has to exceed OSHA parameters, they’re hot in summer (they have a fan in lieu of air conditioning), cold in the winter, and they’re rear-wheel drive.  I got stuck in the things five times in the first week I was actually delivering mail and parcels. 

This is something the LLV just cannot handle. (It’s steeper than it looks.)

And in the petty complaints department, they lack both a radio and cup holders. 

I felt a lot safer, not to mention comfortable, driving around in my own car on the wrong side of the road.  Perverse incentives. 

I know I am not the first to walk out on this job.  Not by a long shot.  The Evergreen post office has been in crisis for months, since November, in fact, when six odd carriers walked out.  I didn’t get the whole story, but it sounds like management was an issue.  Since then, the Postmaster has been replaced. 

But the new Postmaster faces an impossible situation. 

The hiring process takes nearly two months.  I was informed that I was hired provisional to drug testing and a background check on December 20th.  I didn’t actually set foot in the postal annex (operations in Evergreen outgrew the actual post office) until February 15th.  This was after two weeks of orientation and training.  And then there was on the job training.  I spent several days riding with someone, learning his route, so that I could be his sub in the event of anyone getting two days a week off. 

The work itself isn’t necessarily that hard.  You come in at 7am and get started casing the mail.  Each route has a cubby of three to six shelving units, called a case, each shelf divided into cells.  Starting at the top left, there is a cell for each mailbox, in delivery order.  You put in the flats (magazines, catalogs, 8.5×11+ envelopes, etc.) in first, because it is easier to work mail in around them than vice versa.  Some of the flats come in delivery order.  Some do not.  For your letters, the large majority do come in delivery order (otherwise it would be impossible).  But you do collect several fat stacks of “raw” letters from the hot case throughout the morning, where clerks are busy sorting random stuff into the correct route. 

The ubiquitous blue and white Prime envelope is a spur.

Once your flats and letters are in, you start on parcels. 

All of this takes forever when you are new.  You don’t know where the addresses are located in your case, where to look on the shelves for the appropriate cell. 

For some reason, large envelopes, bubble envelopes, and plastic bags are called spurs.  You mark them separately from the larger boxes.  Anything that will fit get crammed in with the mail, to save you time looking for it later.  Everything else is marked with a parcel marker, a flat colored piece of plastic, and the parcel itself is coded according to its location on the shelves, so that you can load them into your truck in roughly delivery order. 

Once I had been trained on the route I would be the official sub for, I was working route 6.  Once you are trained, the whole process makes total sense, but it takes time to learn to do it with any kind of speed.  The career-level carriers, with their own routes and lots of experience, might be out of the office and starting their deliveries by 11am.  If I had help, and someone else was doing my big packages, I might get out by 1pm.  If I didn’t have help, I couldn’t seem to get out the door before 3.  And there was a very real possibility that I would be pulled off route 6 and put onto routes at random, working with cases I didn’t know at all. 

These small parcels are coded, so they can be loaded into the truck in rough delivery order.

I would have gotten faster with time, there is no doubt about that.  Everyone told me that it does get better.  Evidently everyone starts out getting back late into the night. 

I was told during training that 50% of the trainees in the room would quit within six months. 

Perhaps these things are related. 

It seems like a problem that could be solved.  Wouldn’t it be cheaper to maintain a sort of flying squad of experienced RCAs to go to different post offices and help out newbies, than it is to invest in all that training only to lose half of your hires? 

With a dependent, for me to stay, it would have had to have gotten better a lot faster than it was going to.  My elderly mother kept trying to wait supper on me, only to have me get home and fall into bed, neither of us eating.  My personal hygiene was starting to suffer.  After I quit, it took a few days for a daily shower and proper tooth brushing (instead of using one of those little disposable emergency toothbrushes in the car on the way to work) to stop feeling luxurious. 

And, of course, I was starting to worry about bringing illness home to my Mom.  She’s 81 and has asthma.  This is not a good time to be spending all day handling items that have been handled by a long chain of unknown people. 

With such a long, drawn-out hiring process, and insufficient additional help and support for newbies, who keep quitting due to unreasonable hours, it’s no wonder the Evergreen post office is in crisis.  But it’s more than that. 

Since 2013 USPS has had a contract with Amazon.  In June of 2019 FedEx ended their air contract with Amazon, and in August, severed their ties to the company entirely.  I don’t know how much this has increased the volume of Amazon packages coming through the post office, but that volume is enormous.  Route 6 averaged 80 to 90 parcels a day in addition to the mail.  Sunday routes, which are exclusively dedicated to Amazon deliveries, go up to 150+ parcels. 

Amazon delivery on a Sunday. I invested in a new (to me) Highlander specifically for this job. Now I am unemployed and I have a car payment. Yay.

Even if I got a lot faster at casing the mail, a normal eight-hour workday, or a five-day week, was not in the cards. 

Everyone is ordering more Amazon – it’s taking over the world.  But in a rural community, where the nearest store might be 45 minutes away, and where a lot of people have an awful lot money to burn, the volume is ridiculous.  Some customers have installed giant oversized mailboxes, which the carriers call barn boxes.  These are wonderful!  They help a great deal.  But more customers have installed locking boxes that will fit only the thinnest of parcels, if that.  One customer, on the route I subbed, had figured out the best of both worlds, and installed both a locking mailbox and a giant locking parcel box.  I got the feeling this was a bit of an investment, but it seems worthwhile if you are concerned about theft, and you order a lot of things. 

Given the state of the typical battered Evergreen mailbox, I don’t have much confidence that the community will be installing these en masse. 

Upper management is very concerned about the situation in Evergreen.  The Postmaster General knows about the problems in our little city-sized town.  Bigwigs from the regional office came to have a town hall with the community.  Grievances were aired, and, to give the town credit, support was expressed.  Or so I heard.  I couldn’t make it – I was out delivering the mail. 

Unfortunately, the approach of upper management to fixing these problems isn’t going to help with their retention problem.  Carriers were instructed that they must take packages out and scan them on the street, even when they know the package is addressed to an MBU or Mail Box Unit (just what it sounds like – think of the mailboxes for apartments or condos) and it isn’t going to fit in the parcel locker.  Even if this means the carrier won’t be able to fit everything in their truck, and will have to come back to the annex to get that package, specifically so they can scan it as oversized at the correct spot, as recorded by the GPS unit in the scanner. 

The last two days I was there, they had implemented a new policy that seemed specifically designed to punish newbies.  If you didn’t have your DPS (sorry, I forget what it stands for, but it is three to four trays of letters in delivery order) cased up by a certain time, you were required to take it to the street as is.  This meant at every mailbox you had to deliver any parcels and the mail you had cased, and then had to flip through your tray of DPS for additional letters to deliver. 

The day they made me do it this way, two other RCAs (Rural Carrier Associates), filling in from other post offices, had to come out and help me, and we still didn’t get it done until 11pm. 

Barn boxes are the best!

I heard before I left that there were some new hires in training, and that the emergency job fair that they held had gone well.  But after I left, my own carrier told me that two other RCAs had followed my lead and quit.  I’m not sure how this problem can be fixed. 

And, of course, in the week and half since I quit, everything has gotten much worse.  Given the crisis, I’m sure Amazon and other online orders have gone through the roof.  I feel terrible that I had to order some stuff myself.  I left a note for my carrier telling him to feel free to toss my packages out the window in the general direction of the mailbox.  A little rough treatment isn’t going to hurt my kitty litter order.  Once I have income again, I will invest in one of those big barn boxes, and in the meantime, I will never let my mailbox get too full again. 

This is a terrible time to have quit a job, but I have to chalk it up to a learning experience.  Sorry Evergreen.  I had great intentions to deliver your mail, but I just don’t have the stamina.