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This is the final edition of The Mail, Motherboard’s pop-up newsletter about the USPS, voting, labor, and democracy. If you hadn’t already, there’s no point in signing up now. You’re too late.
In early September, I was on the phone with a letter carrier in the northeast while he was on his rounds. In the background, I could hear the postal truck’s door slide open and shut every so often. Sometimes the engine took a little bit of convincing to turn back on. The postal worker, who asked me not to use his real name because the USPS has warned employees not to speak to the media, said I could refer to him as “Adrian.” He started working for the post office about four years ago. It seemed like the best option to him at the time because he didn’t have a college degree. For the first three years, he was a city carrier assistant (CCA), one of many entry-level positions across the USPS that account for about one-fifth of all employees.
These hourly wage positions have few limitations on what management can make them do, minimal benefits, and have no meaningful protections for time off. Employees who work in these non-career positions are relied on to plug the gaps in the USPS’s staffing issues, the result of decades of austerity.
“You’re always on call as a CCA,” Adrian said. Even if you have a scheduled day off, your boss can call the night before and tell you to come in anyways. Supervisors frequently call CCAs the morning of their days off to ask them to come in. At that point, CCAs can refuse to pick up the phone without penalty, but, as Adrian put it, the requests put employees in a position of asking themselves “do you value your mental health or your social life, or do you value money?”
Most non-career employees, particularly those who deliver mail, end up working frequent 60-100 hour weeks until they “make regular” and become a career employee with designated routes, federal employee benefits, a pension, and vacation days. Career employees work overtime, too, but they have more leeway in deciding when and how much overtime they work.
Those three years as a CCA were hard on Adrian. He once had to work 30 days in a row, and seven-day work weeks were common. He also said as a CCA he would have to work while sick because his manager would tell him he simply could not take a sick day. “A lot of times I just wouldn’t sleep,” he conceded, and his mental health suffered.
Adrian is hardly alone. I heard similar stories from other CCAs around the country. But to see for yourself, the USPS subreddit has nearly-daily posts by exhausted, stressed non-career employees. Two recent posts, both from the same day, are titled “Anyone else need a therapist because of this job?” and “Burned Out.”
But now that he’s a regular, Adrian says it was all worth it. And, thanks to all the overtime as a CCA, he was making more money than many of his friends who had college degrees. He’s still young, but has his own house and no student debt.
In retrospect, Adrian feels good about sticking with the post office through those three hard years. But it could have been longer. There is no set amount of time a non-career employee has to stick it out before making regular. It is done by seniority as spots open up. You know where you stand in line, but not how quickly the line will move. Some get lucky and make regular after only a few months. But it usually takes years. And, most CCAs—which has an annual turnover rate of 45.8 percent according to the Office of Inspector General—don’t stick it out.
For the last few months as a CCA, Adrian knew he would be making regular at a certain date which made the final slog more tolerable. But he wasn’t sure how much longer he could have stuck it out had he not known. I asked what kept him going before he got word he would be making regular. “For me, I had no other opportunities to make a living,” he said. “This was very much something I had to do.”
Most people don’t imagine working for the post office as the “American Dream,” the respectable middle class life that is neither ostentatious nor impoverished. But for roughly the last century, working for the post office has been perhaps the most consistent and available means to the middle class life, especially for people for whom other doors were unfairly closed.
To pick just one example, the post office was the way for African Americans to earn a middle class living prior to World War II when white supremacy, Jim Crow laws, and other forms of rampant, overt discrimination made typical middle class employment nearly impossible for them. In the years after the Civil War, “Postal job opportunities represented a relative oasis for blacks in a desert of American white occupational exclusion,” wrote the postal historian Philip Rubio in his book There’s Always Work at the Post Office: African American Postal Workers and the Fight for Jobs, Justice, and Equality. Working for the post office also “served as a dramatic validation of [their] citizenship by making them representatives of the federal government.” By 1940, 14 percent of all African Americans earning above the national median income worked for the post office. In future years, immigrants, veterans, and women, to varying degrees, found steady, dignified careers at the post office.
This is all still true to an extent—the USPS does employ a disproportionate number of veterans and minorities—although the barrier for employment in other sectors as a result of racial, ethnic, or gender discrimination is not as high as it used to be. But, as Adrian alluded to, the post office serves as a different kind of middle class dream today. The quality of jobs available, especially to those without college degrees, is much worse. People with college degrees often struggle to find steady livings as well.
Paradoxically, the post office has also participated in this societal shift. Full-time employment peaked in the late 1990s, before the Bush administration kicked off the recent round of USPS austerity that has continued to this day, even though the number of delivery points continues to increase.
To put this in perspective, the USPS—which is legally required to deliver mail to virtually every person in the country—has about as many full-time workers now as it did in 1967 even though the U.S.’s population has increased by 129.5 million since then. The USPS is able to still function partly because of increased productivity and automation, but also because it relies more on non-career employees like CCAs. Since 2009, the number of career employees fell by 20 percent, but the number of non-career employees increased by 54 percent, according to the USPS Office of Inspector General.
In other words, the USPS has been gradually replacing solid, reliable occupations with temporary, unsustainable working arrangements because it provides the illusion of savings (in the long run, high turnover, constant overtime wages, and staffing shortages resulting in worse service and lost business may negate much of the savings non-career employees offer depending on the accounting methods used). The larger irony here is, amid all the calls for the USPS to function more like its private sector frenemies like Amazon and FedEx—both of which have been called out for questionable labor practices—by slashing labor costs, the USPS has been doing so for as long as Amazon has existed if not longer. If anything, Amazon is learning the labor lessons the USPS taught, not the other way around. There are still hundreds of thousands of good jobs at the USPS, but hundreds of thousands fewer than there used to be.
I began this newsletter in August with a story about a postal worker who had dreamed of working there since she was a little girl. Obviously, most people who work for the post office can’t say the same. Still, these jobs often mean the world to the people who have them. I cannot count the number of times I got on the phone with a postal employee who seemed to have an endless list of complaints about the way the post office works before they added something to the effect of but I’m so grateful to have this job. Some postal workers even refused to be interviewed because they didn’t want to risk losing, as one put it, “the best job I ever had.”
There was a man from a different part of the northeast than Adrian who had loved his job as a high school history teacher until he was laid off in a round of austerity budget cuts. A worker in Portland who had been an artist. Another in Ohio who worked in the kitchen of fast food chains.
“We’re all just a bunch of misfits,” Adrian said of his post office. He meant this in a loving way, adding “I’ve never met a nicer group of people than the people I work with as a carrier.” As he went on to explain, they’re “misfits” in the sense that the post office is where they all ended up because Plan A didn’t pan out.
For many Americans, Plan B has increasingly become not a respectable middle class life in a profession they tolerate, but a tenuous existence of low-wage labor in independent contractor or “gig economy” positions with erratic hours and few if any benefits. What makes the post office unique is not that it has bucked this trend. Indeed, it has contributed to it with the increase of non-career labor. What makes the post office special is it still has one foot in a past, where “innovation” and “efficiency” weren’t catchy buzzwords for labor abuses, worker misclassification, and mass layoffs.
The biggest question for the post office going forward is: which way does the trend line go? Do the graphs and charts continue as they have been for the past few decades in which fewer and fewer workers are squeezed harder and harder? Or does Congress recognize the untenability of the situation and drop the fiction of the USPS as a business that ought to pay for itself? If the USPS is not worthy of our tax dollars, what is?
This question feels all the more existential as we’re bludgeoned by the unavoidable reality that the entire Republican party is committed to making government as messy and dysfunctional as it possibly can. We’re past the point of even the pretense of honest disagreement between parties about what government is and how it should work. As Louis DeJoy has made abundantly clear through action and deed over the past few months, he is not interested in a functioning post office, just as the political party to which he has been a loyal donor is not interested in a functioning government. Broad, existential questions apply to so many of our institutions these days. If a massive deadly global pandemic is not the time to put politics aside as much as humanly possible to save lives and livelihoods, when is? If a smooth transition of power between presidents is no longer on the table, what’s left on it? If every vote not cast in favor of a Republican is fraudulent, then what system of government do we actually have?
What’s next for the post office is one of the many small questions lurking below the much larger one of what’s next for our shattered, pathetic country. Unfortunately, these questions are likely to become increasingly urgent in the coming months. As far as the post office is concerned, DeJoy has made no secret of his desire to make big, sweeping changes to the post office, many of which will be for the worse. And if his previous employment history is any guide, he has little respect for worker rights and dignity. As for the country as a whole, there are no good answers to all of the questions above. It is very difficult to have a functioning government when half the country doesn’t believe in its legitimacy.
I don’t want to end this newsletter on such a downer, even though that would be very much in keeping with my personality and current events. So, I will end with this: we’ve all learned over the last year or so there’s no shame in valuing the small things or the small group of people that make us happiest. And over the last few months, this newsletter and the people who read it have brought me happiness. I have learned so much researching and writing this newsletter and have met some wonderful postal workers who are everything you would want public servants to be. A big thank you goes out to all of them, without whom this project would have been nothing.
And another big thanks goes out to all of you. We’re nothing without our readers. And an extra big thank you to everyone who subscribed to the zine. Hopefully we’ll be able to keep them coming.
And a final thank you to everyone who sent in postcards. All of them were so much fun and made me smile. Whenever we return to our office, we’re going to display them in some form or fashion.
You can always contact me at email@example.com. I’d love to hear from you. Better yet, send me a letter.
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