Mourning The Postal Service? Sorry, They Lost Me A Long Time Ago

Tim Evans •evanstj@gmail.com•(601)606-5177

As a fairly verbose liberal I’m never hesitant to put blame on right-wingers and conservatives…if they deserve the blame. If they don’t, then integrity mandates the blame get put where it belongs, consequences be damned. And while I recognize there are a great many elements to the slow, painful death that is the U.S. Postal Service, I’m going to go a tad contrarian on this one, at least as far as my fellow liberals are concerned.

A colleague of mine at Addicting Info wrote a piece about the recent decision of the Post Office to stop mail service on Saturday and in his second paragraph, he asserts:

The problem, however, isn’t the Post Office. The problem is, and has been from the start, a conservative Congress.

He comprehensively details the financial and funding issues related to Congress’ role as the Boss of the Post Office and, while I have no doubt whatsoever that what he says is true – he’s an excellent writer and does his research – I’m taking issue with his general thesis: that the problem is not the Post Office. Whatever the conservative Congress has done to wreak havoc – and knowing the conservative Congress, some serious havoc has been wreaked – it is my observation that the Post Office is the problem; at the very least, a big hand in its own steady decline.

I know everyone has their own relationship with the post office. In small, rural towns, it really can be like Mayberry, with the jolly postmaster who knows everyone’s names and postmen who don’t need street addresses to get mail where it belongs. The town where I grew up had that kind of post office. In fact, my father worked for that post office for many years. I have incredibly fond memories of post office picnics for the staff and their families; us kids standing in the back area watching my dad put mail in the individual boxes, or waving as our local postman grabbed his bag with a big smile to get that mail delivered. My father even invented a board game called “Rural Route Postman” (try saying that a few times fast!) that we kids LOVED and gave us a colorful appreciation for “postaling”! In grade school, I was the kid who was utterly fascinated by stories of the Pony Express and its indefatigable riders who were precursors to that smiling postman with his lumpy bag. And, of course, there’s always the sweet, nostalgic ideal of “no rain, sleet, snow or hail” – no snarling dog or cranky neighbor – being a match for a hearty postman.

I imagine there are a great many post offices in small towns even today where that same rhythm and work ethic remains; offering services integral to their rural communities, essential in places where FedEx, UPS, or private postal stores don’t exist. For them, I take great pity in the demise of Saturday mail and, potentially, the post office all together.

But beyond the amber glow of nostalgia and the postal particulars of small towns, there’s the other side of the cultural divide: larger communities and urban cities, where, in far too many cases, U.S. postal service has devolved into a poorly managed, deeply inefficient business often staffed by personnel utterly lacking in customer service skills, exuding disrespect for the people they serve. And not in just one, two, three post offices, but many. Not all, but too many.

I live in the Los Angeles area; in my work I’ve had occasion to patronize a number of different post offices throughout this large city, and in every single one of those locations, I have personally experienced and witnessed countless examples of the kind of shoddy service that would get anyone but a civil servant a quick boot out the door.

Now, remember, I’m a daughter of a postal worker so my proclivity is to be pro-postal; I’m not inclined to find fault in a place that provides such essential services to so many. But sweet Mary, the examples of piss-poor postal service are legion and have driven a great many people to eschew the USPO all together, to, instead, get their mail handled at private postal businesses (me included). And this, this, my friends, has more to do with its demise as a conservative Congress. You want examples?

1. A design company I worked for handled all their business mail via a U.S. post box in Venice, CA. A large, expensive post box. After days of not receiving mail, I found the payment envelope in the empty box with a note saying service had been cancelled “due to non-payment.” Guess what was stapled to the envelope? The check that had been sent well before the payment-due date! When I brought this absurdity to the attention of the manager – after waiting in line for about 20 minutes – she literally threw the envelope and check back at me saying, “that’s not something I take care of.” As my head quietly exploded – remember, this was a business not getting their mail, including checks, payments, documents, contracts, etc. – I demanded that someone, anyone, solve this ridiculous problem. A rather chagrined clerk finally came up and handled it, apologizing for both the idiocy of the snafu and the manager’s appalling response.

 

2. At the Manhattan Beach, CA post office, after standing in line, again, for about 20 minutes, the customer in front of me finished her transaction at a window and left; I walked up. The clerk behind the counter, snapping her gum (seriously), looked at me with fire in her eyes and loudly admonished, “I did not say I was ready for the next customer! Until I say I’m ready for the next customer you do NOT just come up to my window!” I’m not exaggerating. I wanted to reach across the window, yank that gum out of her mouth, and stick right where the – well, you get my point. It took everything in me not to scream in response, but I stepped back into line and when it was my turn, 2 seconds later, I made sure I went to another window.

3. At a large post office in LA proper, I was waiting in a line that stretched all the way across the room and out the door. This was a post office with about ten teller windows with two open – during lunch hour, mind you, when many people try to take care of business. After waiting well over half an hour, I got close enough to the window to see behind the teller area and, in clear view, sat a group of tellers at a table, snacking and chatting amongst themselves. And, just as it was my turn, that second window closed and she joined the gaggle in the back. When I made mention to the one clerk left that it was ridiculous to have ten windows and only only clerk, he snapped about people being on their breaks and not enough funding for more workers. Uh huh. Lots of ’em sittin’ back there on that break…

4. I mailed myself an envelope from my job, about 15 minutes from our post box. And it took two weeks, TWO WEEKS, to get there. When I asked the postman behind the counter why that was, he said testily, “I don’t have enough help around here to get the mail out every day…talk to management.” So, I did. She was pleasant, commented that the postman was a bit of a problem, but he was, after all, a civil servant, protected in his job…which apparently meant he could get away with a lot of sloppy, attitudinal work practices without consequence.

5. As for that local post office that took two weeks to deliver a letter from down the street, it’s a tiny little place with no big city issues to deal with, and, as mentioned, the main guy working there is a tool. While standing in the always very slow lines, everyone was regaled with his loud complaints about his health, his job, how crappy it was to work for the post office, etc. He appeared purposely slow, he was consistently passive aggressive; in fact, when I went in the first time to open a mail box, he said none were available, despite the sign saying differently. When I queried that further with the aforementioned manager, she was stunned and said they had plenty. Turns out this guy just didn’t want to take the time to process my order.

6. Similar to the payment crisis in at the Venice PO, we suddenly stopped receiving our mail. I waited in line for about 20 minutes that day, too, and when I finally got to Cranky Man’s window and asked where our mail was, he very loudly said for all to hear, “well, you didn’t pay your bill so your mail is being held.” Of course, we had paid our bill, online and several weeks early, but it took about two weeks for this fellow to get his system adjusted and our mail back in our box. But that was it for us; I went to the main office and demanded a refund, which I had to spend several weeks chasing.

7. Even the postman who home delivers mail in our neighborhood, rolled his eyes when I asked “what’s the deal with the post office?” and said, “That place is crazy. Run by a bunch of idiots. You’d be better off going to that postal place down the street.” Which is exactly what we did. We went to the postal place down the street, we pay a little more than the U.S. Postal Service charged us for a box, and it’s worth every bloody penny. They told us they get lot of customers fleeing the USPO.

Is the conservative Congress responsible for too many poorly trained staff who lack work ethic? Can we blame the government for shoddy customer service skills and profoundly inefficient work flow? Are post office customers expected to tolerate appalling service from USPO employees differently than other businesses? If a consumer gets sub-par service at a restaurant or a retail business, typically there’s recourse if they complain: the meal is comped, the item is discounted, and if the employee doesn’t step up and improve, they’re out the door. I don’t see that paradigm at the post office; I see the opposite.

Yet an article in The Daily Beast/Newsweek makes this point:

Perhaps the biggest failure of the five-day delivery plan is that it ignores 80 percent of the Postal Service’s costs: labor. Postmaster Potter has made headway in reducing work hours and the costs of benefits and pensions, but the average postal employee still makes $83,000 in salary and benefits a year, placing postal workers among the highest-paid government employees. There are more than 34,000 post offices in the country, which is more locations than Walmart, Starbucks, and McDonalds combined. Unless the Postal Service plans on selling burgers and lattes, it’s time to downsize its supersized footprint.

That was in 2010. In November of 2012, it was reported by Government Executive that:

Some postal workers will receive a pay raise in a few weeks.

Career employees represented by the American Postal Workers Union will receive a 1 percent pay increase, effective Nov. 17, and reflected in their Dec. 7 paychecks, according to the union. Those workers also will get two cost-of-living adjustments in March 2013. The pay boosts are a result of a collective bargaining agreement for 2010 through 2015 between APWU and the U.S. Postal Service.

It is the first pay raise in three years for the workers.

Postal support employees, who are not eligible for COLAs [cost of living adjustments], will receive an across-the-board increase of 2 percent.

Nice, huh? And in these “difficult economic times,” too…kinda makes you expect, say, good service.

Look, I have no doubt there are many thoughtful, conscientious postal workers who do an exemplary job for the people they serve, even in big cities. I’ve met and transacted with some of them. But despite that undeniable contingent, too many have contributed to a lowering of the bar, to such an extent that, as a business, the USPO has eroded their good will with too large a population of customers who’ve taken their business elsewhere.

So while some may mourn the loss of Saturday delivery, and others shake their fist at the purported postal mismanagement of the government, I’m just going to enjoy the incredibly friendly people at our new postal place and revel in the fact that my mail is never late, there are no payment snafus, nor one damn line to stand in since we signed up. I bet that sweet, smiling guy behind the counter who hugs my dog every time I come in doesn’t get near $83K a year, and probably doesn’t get benefits, but he’s got the gratitude of customers who appreciate a job well and warmly done.

Photo by Tim Evans @ Unsplash

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6 thoughts on “Mourning The Postal Service? Sorry, They Lost Me A Long Time Ago

  1. Pingback: Lacy Chase

    1. LDW

      Yep, lots of weird drama playing out in those long lines. I’ve stood for too long and in too many over the course of my life. As they say, you never get that time back! 🙂 I wish them luck. A good many people, particularly in smaller towns as I mentioned, really rely on them so I hope they can step it up to stay in business. I, however, am delighted to have moved on. Thanks for reading and commenting! LDW

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  2. Within the past year we have a new postman and for the first time since we moved in, over 17 years ago, we get our mail delivered promptly and to the right address. Before then I don’t believe the delivery person read English.

    That said, you may have an independent box but isn’t the mail still moved by the USPS? Still a pretty amazing deal that a person will come to your home or office, pick up an envelope or package and take it to an individual address. Usually.

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    1. LDW

      I know, that’s the argument I keep hearing but I don’t feel any particular amazement at a business simply doing what it is they’re supposed to do, any more than I’d be amazed at a restaurant delivering a good meal.

      And, as in all the cases I mentioned, not always that well. Like any business, there’s good and bad in the various “franchises,” but way too much bad in my experience. Though I’m thrilled you finally have a “good one”! LDW

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  3. Maddy

    I was browsing online today and found your article. This is an interesting view of the post office, something most of us take for granted. I like mine but I’ve been in others that were as horrible as some of the ones you talk about. Wonder if they’ll end up shutting them all down someday. Anyway just wanted to make the point that I enjoyed the article. Thanks.

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    1. LDW

      Maddy:

      Thanks for taking time to read the piece and make comment. I do understand that for many people the PO is sacrosanct. I got comments on Facebook from people who seemed to take very personally my critique, feeling that I was selling the PO short, not really giving it its due; it’s an emotional matter for some. I get that. But I also get that many, many nostalgic businesses have gone under as technology, standards of service, cultural preferences, etc., change and make different demands. The USPO is either going to step up and adapt, like every other “old time” business has had to – bookstores, retail shops, printing companies, photography companies – or they ultimately won’t make it, nostalgia or not. I hope they figure it out for those who use them, care about them, see them as an essential. I really do.

      Thanks again and “browse” by anytime! LDW

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