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RICH IN SIGHT: Goin’ postal ... or where’s postal goin’?

July 19, 2010
RICHARD ROSENTRETER

The term “goin’ postal” was introduced into the American vernacular years ago following a rash of incidents in which postal workers went on a shooting rampage against their co-workers — usually supervisors. But the new catch phrase should be: Where’s the postal goin’?


    The government agency is in dire straits as it continues to lose money. Communicating through e-mail and social networking on the Internet through Facebook and Twitter have become the norm and scores of people use online banking to pay their bills. Recently there’s been talk of a five-day delivery week and many small rural post offices have shut down. According to a CBS report, the Postal Service lost $7.8 billion in 2007 and 2008 and the agency announced in August 2009 that it had already lost $4.7 billion during the year.


    But it wasn’t always this way. As a former letter carrier on Long Island for 15 years, I can speak firsthand as to how instrumental the Postal Service used to be and how mismanagement contributed to its downward spiral. Yes, I was once a letter carrier, and have been called everything from the Merry Mailman and Cliff Clavin to other expletives if that check really wasn’t in the mail.


    I was chased by dogs, razed by the dog owners whose pet I spattered with pepper spray and harassed because I didn’t deliver that Social Security or other check in a timely fashion — that is, before the banks closed. I’d smirk when a customer told me their dog didn’t bite, while the canine would be growling, its teeth glistening and foam gathering in its mouth.


    But this is no time for dog stories.


    The delivery of mail has existed on American territory before the establishment of the United States, and thanks to Ben Franklin the first official postal service was established in Philadelphia in 1775. Its history is one of the most important in our country, and images of the Pony Express are a true part of American lore. The image of the mailman making his daily rounds is engrained into the fabric of America.


    The mailman is someone everyone can relate to — after all, he stops by your home every day, and at one time or another, everyone has waited for the mailman and his bag of goodies. The mailman USED to be a real part of a community — at least I was.


    When I was a letter carrier, I enjoyed being a vital part of the community. I was invited to barbecues, graduation and holiday parties, and enjoyed watching the kids in the community grow up.


    And there were real people-to-people connections. I’ll never forget when a young girl who lived on my route was involved in a serious car crash and spent weeks in the hospital. I went to visit her and as I walked in, her entire family was gathered around her bed. She could hardly move — but when she saw her mailman walk in, her face lit up and eyes began to tear. It was special to her that her mailman took the time to visit. That was the type of strong bond a letter carrier would have with the community he or she served.


    Whenever I tell people I used to work for the post office, I usually get a response of “Why did you quit such a good job?


    Well, the main reason is I sensed a change in its management and operation that actually began in the 1990s when the postal model shifted from mainly a service to a business.


    First, the agency began to spend millions of dollars on automation equipment. The plan was to have the machinery sort all the mail into delivery point sequence (DPS) so that letter carriers would spend less time in the office and more time on the street. Routes could be eliminated and the Postal Service would wind up saving money. On paper it seemed like a good plan, except that upper management didn’t plan on many of the intangibles involved in mail being sorted through high-speed equipment.


    Larger or smaller pieces of mail would get jammed, and the letter carrier did not lose all that much office time. Micro-management became the norm as the Postal Service was forced to justify its expenditure into automation. A mass route inspection mission began whose aim was to eliminate routes to save money. This involved bringing a whole team of supervisors into a particular post office to follow a letter carrier’s every move. It was during one of these inspection blitzes when I was truly enlightened as to the direction the post office would head.


    One particular Monday, a supervisor followed me along my route tracking each minute it took me to get from stop to stop. Along my route, I delivered mail to a union office that would receive a stack of certified letters at the beginning of the week. As I waited for the secretary to sign each form, I asked her if she had a nice weekend and we had the usual friendly small talk between two people who saw each other every day of the week. I spent only as much time as it took her to sign the papers. When we left the building, my supervisor offered me some sage advice.


    “Rich, you must limit your conversation to just a hello and goodbye,” he said with a straight face and stern voice.


    I didn’t argue. But the supervisory edict resonated in my brain. Instead of goin’ postal, I eventually quit the post office.


    Time was money, and the post office engaged in a blitzkrieg initiative of tracking each letter carrier. Supervisors would follow carriers and the Postal Service spent more money developing its GPS capabilities, which is not only used to track parcels, but monitor the daily movement of letter carriers. Big Brother was always watching. More money was spent on supervising and micro-management than nurturing a quality customer service philosophy.


    There was also a binge to acquire Free Trader-type publications that went to every home as part of a revenue-generating quest. These circulars also contained supermarket fliers and made a letter carrier’s bag much heavier. It also didn’t reduce delivery times for carrier routes, which frustrated postal leaders into further micro-management — and wasting more money.


    Routes were inspected daily and letter carriers were forced to adhere to a strict schedule — heavy workload or not. Many carriers were more concerned with finishing their routes on time at risk of being disciplined by postal managers. New hires would care less about delivering mail to the right address and more about just getting through the route.


    (One word of note: The aforementioned postal situations weren’t seen much in the North Country and smaller communities. The Postal Service mainly practiced its strong-armed management techniques in larger cities where their cost-saving measures and micro-management would have the greatest impact.)


    Poor upper management — those who call the shots at “Postal Headquarters” in Washington — led to a downward spiral of customer service, which ultimately led to a loss of confidence in the “Postal brand.” But that was just the beginning of the end.


    Nowadays, the biggest danger facing the post office is a changing world as the computer has replaced many primary functions of the post office. But the Postal Service still has two things going for it: It has one of the largest workforces in the country and access to just about every man, woman and child in the entire nation. The agency should, no, must, find a way to market those strengths.             Perhaps there’s nothing that can save the Postal Service from its demise. Change is always inevitable. But it’s sad to think that the post office will someday crumble into oblivion. However, people must not forget that there was a time when the post office was a proud and vital government service.


    Someday, when you hear a shimmy on that rust-covered mailbox and swear you saw a shadow walk along your porch or a box-like vehicle drive by your house, have no fear. It will only be the “ghosts of mailmen past” echoing the postal motto: “And neither snow, nor rain, nor heat, nor gloom of night, nor the winds of change, nor a nation challenged, will stay us from the swift completion of our appointed rounds. Ever.”


    And if the check’s not in the mail, don’t go postal.





 

Article Photos

Yours truly as the Merry Mailman

 
 

 

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