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Postal Traumatic Stress

[whitespace] postal workers illustration
Winston Smith

Rigid managers, brutal deadlines--is it any wonder some postal workers are ready to snap?

By Traci Hukill

Anyone who grew up in the Dick-and-Jane era of educational materials knows how mailmen are supposed to look and behave. In the colorful cutouts and sturdy first-grade primers of that era, mailmen (and they were always men) were snappy dressers in their crisp uniforms and caps--pasty-skinned but strong-jawed types with slightly anemic smiles.

They knew everyone's name and helped lost children find their way home. Like Walter Cronkite and baseball games, the daily appearance of the mailman was a sign that all was right with the world. The Teacher, the Policeman, the Fireman, the Mailman--it was a much simpler world and a much simpler post office. In those sunny days a generation ago, mailmen didn't file grievances, endure oppressive working conditions and, finally, after years of frustration, blow their supervisors away with semiautomatic weapons.

All that would come later.

In Randy's 15-year tenure in the San Jose cluster of post offices, which includes 219 stations employing 7,500 people from Milpitas to King City and over to Bakersfield, he's watched postal workers become the butt of the nation's "going postal" jokes. After a series of shootings by postal employees, the most horrifying being the 1986 incident in Edmond, Okla., that claimed 15 lives, rabid (and stupid and lazy) postal workers started making regular appearances on screens big and little, from Naked Gun 33 1/3 to Seinfeld. In Postal Life, the official magazine of the Postal Service, a contributor bitterly identifies the "four Ls"--Leno, Letterman, Liddy and Limbaugh--as the worst perpetrators of post office jokes. Snide Internet references to "snail mail" haven't helped matters.

Randy, who could lose his job if his real name appeared here (the Postal Service forbids criticism by its employees lest it erode "public trust"), doesn't think going postal is funny at all. Most of the postal employees interviewed for this story believe incidents of postal violence attract an unfair amount of media attention, and some point to a national study saying that the workplace homicide rate for the Postal Service is just under that for all occupations.

But most people don't read the part of the report that says "co-workers appear to be disproportionately responsible for homicides that occur in the Postal Service"--57 percent compared to 4 percent in other industries. Nationwide, most workplace violence relates to robberies, the kind of crime that gets convenience store workers and cabbies killed.

Randy understands why someone might blow a gasket. He has numerous complaints about an agency that he says spies on its own employees, punishes good work with more work and institutionalizes pettiness. "If they don't like you they'll stand behind you with a stopwatch while you empty your case," he says, using postal lingo for "sorting the mail."

It would be easy to dismiss Randy as a malcontent if so many other people's stories didn't echo his. As it is, the tales add up to a drama in which management and labor are practically at war, not just here but across the country.

In a book called Going Postal published in 1997, true-crime writer Don Lasseter examines the reasons for 20 violent Postal Service-related incidents. Though most of the book--"with 12 pages of shocking photographs!"--focuses on dramatic storytelling, Lasseter concludes that an autocratic management style is often to blame when postal workers lose it. And he interviews postal employees who think conditions are getting worse, not better.

The Spoils of War

IN 1971 THE NEW United States Postal Service took over the job of delivering the nation's mail. The old Post Office Department had long fallen victim to blatant cronyism, becoming a dumping ground for political appointees. The result was a bloated, inefficient and corrupt bureaucracy that collapsed in 1970 under the weight of a debilitating two-week strike.

The Nixon administration created the Postal Service to run like a corporation. Rather than answering to Congress, it takes direction from an 11-member board of governors, nine of whom are presidential appointees who in turn appoint the postmaster general. Rates are set by the Postal Rate Commission. The Postal Service's mandate requires it to break even every year, but it has often fallen short. Since 1994, however, the Postal Service has shown more than a $1 billion profit each year.

But success hasn't made life any easier for postal workers--in fact, things may have gotten worse. Craft workers--letter carriers, clerks, mail handlers and others--complain that the profit is a result of an ever more grueling pace. "You would think they'd let up on us," Randy says, "but the focus is still always on what we're doing wrong.

"The single most stressful aspect of the Postal Service is the constant pressure to go faster," he says. "With that going on, people make more mistakes and get into more trouble. The more trouble you get into, the more pressure there is."

Jan Maddux, president of the 1,000-plus-member American Postal Workers Union Local 73, sits in his San Jose office describing some uncharming but typical managerial tactics. "You're gone 10 minutes and 30 seconds on your break, and you're AWOL 30 seconds," he says. "They'll stand behind you and watch you to make sure you're not casing with one hand because that's wasting time, see? So they'll write you up."

The pressure doesn't translate into monetary rewards--at least not for people like Randy. Unlike FedEx, which awarded its workers (including line employees) $24 million in bonuses after the UPS strike, Postal Service employees got "day-old donuts," as Randy tells it.

It is a different story for postal management. Last year the Postal Service paid its executives, managers, postmasters and supervisors $160 million in bonuses.

The Economic Value Added program, as the managerial incentive plan is called, has raised union ire since its inception in 1994. Based on districtwide performance goals, it subjects managers to horizontal competitive pressure from neighboring post offices as well as vertical pressure from their superiors. That gets passed down to the clerks and carriers.

In a recent issue of The Postal Record, the magazine of the National Association of Letter Carriers, a Texas NALC representative writes that the three supervisors at her branch each bagged a $2,500 bonus in December. In an unprecedented display of postal generosity, craft employees there got one too--$196.66 to be divided among 23 employees, with the stipulation that the money go to charity.

Exception to the Rule

THE LOBBY of the downtown Santa Cruz post office rings noisily with echoing voices and footsteps, but in Postmaster Don Cattivera's carpeted office, peace and quiet reign, a testament to Cattivera's benevolent rule. By all accounts he's a good postmaster, kind and fair. An inspirational sign behind Cattivera's desk reads, "Calm Is Strength. Upset Is Weakness." Grievance activity here is low, even if the workload is as heavy as elsewhere.

Cattivera started in 1959 as a letter carrier in San Jose and became the postmaster at Gilroy in 1977. One gets the sense that he's gotten through all these years by making the best of difficult situations. He's a master of the positive spin--and it smells more like survival than the reek of corporate air freshener.

The door opens, and Cattivera blasts in, moving with the kind of momentum that propels paramedics. A compact man with wiry graying hair and dark circles under his eyes, he shakes my hand with a firm grip, smiles and sits down across the desk, a whirlwind suddenly settled into rapt attention.

"See here?" he says, showing me this week's flash report, which compares each week's performance to the previous week and year. "This says our hours are up 3.3 percent. But over here"--he flips the page--"it says our volume was up almost 13 percent from last year. We absorbed 76 percent of the increase in workload.

"These people work hard. The workload ..." he sighs, not finishing the sentence. When asked if he thinks the pressure to perform makes employees feel like they're being watched for slipups, he covers his face with his hands and scrubs at it, the same way people do when they've been staring at a computer monitor too long.

"We're supervising them not to catch them messing up but to be sure everything is handled properly," he says finally.

"We have all these spotlights on us, and that's why we've just gotten better and better," Cattivera adds. "And isn't that the way it should be? Shouldn't we be held accountable to make sure you get your mail every day?"

On a tour of the workroom floor, I realize this is a very busy time. This week, a team of route inspectors is following carriers to make sure each route is eight hours long. As one carrier cases his mail, I see an inspector standing behind him with a counter and clipboard. I ask Cattivera how he'll balance his productivity tables if the routes are too long. Will he hire more carriers, even if it hurts his numbers?

After some waffling he says yes. But the job market is very healthy now, he says, and it's easy for people to find other work and skip the Postal Service's six-week hiring process.

Under Siege?

THERE IS ANOTHER reason the Postal Service sometimes has trouble hiring. Despite the popular image of the carefree letter carrier making his or her daily rounds, new employees quickly discover that, despite the good pay and benefits, the reality is quite different.

In the trenches, the work is physically as well as psychologically stressful. Along with the management-badgering experienced in most facilities, hour after hour of lifting, hauling and sorting results in a variety of health problems, some real, some imagined. Clerks and carriers report a high incidence of back problems and repetitive motion injuries, while the mind-numbing nature of the work gives rise to wisecrack ailments, such as "postal brain rot." Then there are the better-known hazards, like dog bites and the risk of being a victim of random violence.

Still, there are a lot of jobs to fill. Despite growing automation, the Postal Service continues to rely primarily on people power. Bankrolling 861,000 workers, the Postal Service is the ninth-largest employer in the U.S.--larger than Coca-Cola, Xerox and Kodak combined. And it does an amazing job. That a letter from Poughkeepsie, N.Y., can make it to Yuma, Ariz., in three or four days is a victory for civilization that we take utterly for granted without having the faintest idea of how it's done. We don't blink an eye at posting a letter even if we've forgotten someone's apartment number or ZIP code. Somehow, we know it will get through. Our trust is so strong we throw fits when our mail arrives at 3:30 in the afternoon instead of 1.

That faith shows up in polls, the most recent by the Pew Research Center that showed that Americans ranked the Postal Service the best government agency. Factor in the low price of a first-class letter, 32 cents (in Japan, it's more like 70 cents), and the U.S. mail service may be the best deal in the world.

Despite the high marks and healthy profits, the Postal Service considers itself under siege--from both competitors and congressional critics. "Our backs are against the wall because of email and competitors like FedEx," says Bil Paul, spokesman for the San Jose Performance Cluster. "The growth of our first-class mail, which is our bread and butter, has slackened off. Email and electronic money transfers have cut growth, and that's worrisome. We're trying to become a better competitor against UPS and FedEx, especially when it comes to parcels."

Also, in the last 15 years, there have been regular attempts in Congress to open the Postal Service to even more competition--although it already has more than any other postal system in the world. Conservatives would like to bust its monopoly on first-class mail delivery, which is guaranteed by the federal private express statutes. But simply to repeal the monopoly, Paul says, would allow a competitor to stick to major cities, while the Postal Service would get stuck with the pricey job of carrying the mail to out-of-the-way places. "We could become a boutique mail carrier, and it would be quite expensive," Paul frets.

Most observers agree that for unfettered competition in mail delivery to be fair, either other companies would have to be required to deliver to everyone, like the USPS is now, or the Postal Service would have to be allowed to set prices and choose where to deliver at will. The latter choice would effectively end the universal delivery Americans have enjoyed virtually since Benjamin Franklin invented the letter-sorting case.

Workin' for the Man

MEANWHILE, the pressure builds on good workers. Santa Cruz employees Raquel and Maggie, like Randy, don't want their real names used. They're "casual" workers, hired six months a year without benefits. They often work six-day weeks, and their shifts can last four hours or 11--however long it takes to finish the mail. Their take on working in Santa Cruz is slightly different from Postmaster Cattivera's, demonstrating that even in the better offices, productivity pressure is intense.

"The worst for me is how they take and take and push and push," Maggie says. "The harder you work, the harder they work you. So you have to pace yourself."

Management often makes a bad situation worse by playing favorites. When supervisors spy on some carriers in unmarked cars while other workers slack off, disrespect boils into loathing, and grievances start pouring into union offices.

"People will be gone an hour and a half, and you'll find out they're on an extended smoke break," Maggie explains. "They don't care if it takes 12 hours--they just want to get the overtime pay."

"A few of us do the bulk of the work on a daily basis," Jackson observes.

Their experience echoes Randy's. "The only way to make more money in the post office is to work slower," he says, although he personally takes pride in working hard. "The harder you work, the more work you get. All you get is more mail, a bigger route."

John Spencer, president of NALC Branch 1427 in Mountain View, has spent the last 15 years of his 35 in the Postal Service representing 1,100 carriers from San Carlos to Cupertino. He calls the Postal Service a "national treasure" and likes to stress the positives.

But his grievance workload in 1997 was unprecedented. Instead of the usual 300 to 500 complaints, his office had 1,200 last year. "And it's not only in this branch but nationwide," he says. "For all intents and purposes, it's a labor-management war."

In a report released last October, the General Accounting Office (Congress' auditing arm) concluded that "little progress has been made in improving the persistent labor-management relations problems" of the Postal Service. The GAO cited "autocratic" management styles and "adversarial attitudes of employees, unions and management" as reasons for the sorry state of affairs. The report revealed that the backlog of employee grievances has shot up from 65,000 to 90,000 since 1994. And it noted that "generally, craft employees believed that managers and supervisors did not treat employees with respect or dignity."

Spencer blames the current contentious climate on a change in management philosophy that became evident a couple of years ago. "Within the last 24 months, management has basically disregarded contracts," he says. "To get down to it, I think Marvin Runyon, who just left the position of postmaster general, took the philosophy that a union-free environment would work best for the Postal Service."

For example, he says, a year and a half ago management "unilaterally withdrew" from a collaborative process known as Employee Involvement, which was instituted in 1983 to provide a forum for management, craft employees and union reps to discuss concerns outside of the grievance process. It was started at a time when the Postal Service experienced a sudden jump in mail volume that was putting enormous stress on the system and its workers.

"EI is not the quintessential answer to everything," Spencer admits. "But clearly, if people are willing to sit down and work things out, we will be a better organization."

Not only that, Spencer says, but "management has left us out of the loop in terms of viable input to how automation can work effectively."

He's talking about the Delivery Point Sequence (DPS) system, which uses optical character readers to sort letters into delivery sequence for carriers. After four years in the San Jose area, he says, DPS still misroutes mail or includes letters for people who've moved. Sometimes it sends mail to the wrong city. There are even stories of DPS "loops" that bounce letters between cities for days.

Randy blames DPS for an increase in his workload. Because his route is supposedly in sequence, leaving him only nonletter mail to sort, his route has been increased. But he spends extra time every day taking care of stray letters that shouldn't be in his load. Of the 10 linear feet of letter mail he delivers daily, up to a fifth of it is misrouted--and therefore delayed.

Before, Randy says, when a route was sorted by hand for delivery, a good carrier would bring back two or three letters a day that shouldn't have gone out. "Now," he says, "it's not uncommon to bring back two feet of it." A foot of mail is equal to about 250 letters.

The NALC, Spencer continues, "believes it is most efficient to case the automated mail, to finger through it. But management will not permit that because they say it's inefficient." As a result, the system no longer takes advantage of one of its greatest strengths: the institutional memory of its long-term employees.

Death Schmeth

SADLY, EVERY TIME there is a rash of violence, postal workers' problems are only compounded. An oppressive postal culture becomes even more vigilant. The USPS leadership circles the wagons against the outside world and tries to explain away the problem as being societal in nature, while internally turning a blind eye to the problem.

A case in point: In November 1991, after five people were killed by a recently fired employee at the post office in Royal Oak, Mich., the Postal Service set up a nationwide 800 number for employees to report potentially violent co-workers. But after the system was overwhelmed with employees calling to complain about management abuses, the number was shut down.

Inside postal facilities, an Orwellian atmosphere reigns, with surveillance portholes overlooking workroom floors and employee break rooms in order to protect what is referred to as the "sanctity of the mail." Supervisors have been encouraged for years to discipline employees for insignificant infractions while workers, known simply as "bodies" to their superiors, are routinely dehumanized. Stories of abuse, like not being allowed to attend a mother's funeral or the birth of a child, are common.

Aptos carrier Frank Ware recalls one day 10 years ago when he was an NALC steward in the Santa Clara Post Office. A letter carrier's wife called, frantic. The couple's house was on fire, but the supervisor who took the call didn't tell the carrier about it until his shift was over because he didn't want to use overtime hours paying others to make up for the carrier's emergency absence. The woman's father died in the fire that day.

Other times, it's simply a question of ineptitude. One carrier told of being given a two-week suspension without pay toward the end of his postal career for an infraction he says he didn't commit. After the suspension was scheduled, the supervisor called back and apologetically asked if he would postpone it because the post office was understaffed that week. The carrier, laughing, refused.

It's not hard to see why people lose it working for the post office. The constant surveillance alone would drive some people over the edge, and the peculiar logic takes care of the rest. Apart from the challenges of electronic competition, the problems plaguing the Postal Service are deep, systemic infections. Every time someone snaps in a postal facility somewhere and innocent people die, craft employees elsewhere in the country look at each other and a silent message passes between them: It could have been here.

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From the August 6-13, 1998 issue of Metro.

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