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.
“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.”
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.