Lost in the mail: A three part series about the demise of the USPS

Letter carriers across the Beach Cities have been working past dark in recent weeks. Photo by Chelsea Sektnan

Part 1

Lost in the mail

Budget cuts, Congressional meddling force local carriers to work through the night to deliver mail 

Originally published on Nov. 3, 2011 at Easy Reader News

 

A blue headlamp bobs along the sidewalk in North Redondo, weaving down driveways, in-and-out between parked cars, and across streets. The postal carrier wearing the lamp is heard opening the metal locks of mailboxes and prying free rusty hinges to deliver the day’s mail. As she walks back to her truck, the sky fades from dark blue to black. She will be walking the streets delivering mail until well after dark.

Change is afoot within the United States Postal Service, and across the nation mail carriers are carrying the brunt of this change. A combination of financial strain and the implementation of new labor-saving technology at sorting stations has resulted in fewer carriers working longer hours.

“Recently, the U.S. Postal Service went through some route adjustments,” said Richard Maher a USPS spokesperson, adding that the Redondo Beach branch is implementing a new way of sorting larger pieces of mail, like catalogues and legal-sized envelopes, in the order each carrier delivers his or her route. Called a Flats Sequencing System (FSS) and now located at the Los Angeles central USPS facility, it is an automatic, high-tech sorting system with conveyor belts and trays that sorts parcels based on size and location of each item’s destination address. (For video and more details, see USPS FSS page site.)

Since implementation, however, mail delivery to the Redondo branch from the central L.A.sorting plant has been later in the day. This, in turn, has forced carriers to start their routes later. “The machines aren’t fully functional,” said David Gordillo, vice president of the California Area American Postal Workers Union. “We are jumping ahead of ourselves.”

A USPS employee works well after dark in Redondo Beach. Photo by Chelsea Sektnan

Gordillo attributed the late mail delivery in part to an adjustment by everyone to the new machines.  With the new technology, came changes, he explained. Because of the new and, it’s assumed, more capable machines, the postal service decided to change delivery routes to be more efficient; expanding the distance the carriers travel for each routes and the number of households they deliver to while condensing the number of routes and carriers in each city. The routes went out to the letter carriers for bidding, causing the postal carriers to request certain routes based on their seniority, while many mail carriers were reassigned or their routes were adjusted, explained a source at the post office.

“Nobody’s happy with the changes,” said a mail carrier in Hermosa Beachwho asked not to be identified. “We are getting paid overtime, but some people have to work 8 a.m. until 10 p.m. when usually we were done by six. Sometimes we’ll get done with a route and be assigned to pick up the slack on another.”

Residents who are no longer receiving their mail at their normal time have also expressed displeasure to postal employees.

On Curtis Avenue in Redondo Beach, residents have noticed that mail is now sometimes delivered as late as 10 p.m. and that the carrier changes from day to day. Mail on Curtis had been delivered by the same carrier for years, always during daylight hours, despite the carrier often stopping to chat with residents. Postal carriers said that they are not allowed to comment on the situation. But residents throughout Redondo Beach and Hermosa Beach, whose carriers work out of the main post office on Catalina Avenue, have seen similar late-night deliveries.

Maher said the late night deliveries are a temporary problem.

“As employees get used to routes or readjust, service will return to normal,” he said. “Customers may also receive delivery earlier than they are accustomed to, as some addresses that were previously on the end of a route may now be at the beginning. FSS allows letter carriers to begin their routes earlier in the day, spending less time in the office and more time on the street.”

“Route adjustments are a common reality,” Terry Stoller, the president of the California Local Postal Worker’s Union said. “Regardless of new machines you can’t have weeks and weeks of late delivery; even going on for more than one day is cause for serious concern. They are trying their best but they aren’t allowed the staff to do it adequately.”

Financial woes

In Manhattan Beach, Hermosa Beach, Redondo Beachand El Segundo, a total of 42 routes out of 170 have been eliminated, forcing the remaining carriers to work longer hours to cover the new, longer routes. In Manhattan Beach, the routes went from 38 to 29, cutting 9 and making the remaining routes longer. In Hermosa Beach, the number of routes went from 21 to 14, in El Segundo, 19 to 14. The most significant cut was in Redondo Beach, going from 92 to 71 routes, reconfiguring the remaining distances to cover the ground that was previously delivered by 21 more routes.

“We’re short staffed to begin with,” said Mike Lopez, a 61-year-old postal clerk who is 34-year employee of the USPS in Redondo Beach. “Eventually they will get more organized, but the bottom line is that they need more people, not less.”

Hiring more people means more money is needed, and currently the USPS is in a financial bind. It ended its 2011  third quarter with $3.1 billion loss, according to a USPS press release. Although the loss was less than for the same period in last fiscal year’s $3.5 billion loss, the postal service is still losing business.

Third quarter mail volume declined to 39.8 billion pieces, compared to 40.9 million during the third quarter of 2010. The USPS will handle an estimated 167 billion pieces of mail this fiscal year, down 22 percent from five years ago, according to USPS figures. Net losses for the nine months ending in June 30, 2011 amounted to $5.7 billion. “Even with significant cost reductions and revenue growth initiatives, current financial projections indicate the Postal Service will have a cash shortfall and will have reached its statutory borrowing limit by the end of the fiscal year,” said the release. “Absent substantial legislative change, the Postal Service will be forced to default on payments to the federal government.”

A Hermosa Beach carrier, wearing a miner’s lamp because he was delivering after dark, noted that whether or not the volume of mail decreases, carriers must still stop at every house. So even as carriers adjust to the new realities facing the USPS, the job itself is likely to have permanently changed – as has the service that customers can expect.

In August, Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe released a “Workforce Optimization” proposal that asks Congress to ignore layoff protections in USPS collective bargaining agreements and thus enable the service to cut 220,000 jobs by 2015. Up to 120,000 jobs – a fifth of the USPS workforce – would be cut this year. The plan also proposes looking at 3,700 under-utilized post offices for possible closure and introduces the new Village Post Office concept – offices owned by local businesses that would offer stamps and flat-rate packaging.

“We continue to take aggressive actions to reduce costs and bring the size of our infrastructure into alignment with reduced customer demand,” said Donahoe, said in a statement to postal workers.

A new age

Many people attribute the Postal Service’s financial woes to email. Stoller, however, says that isn’t entirely the case. Along with email and the internet came online shopping, a major source of revenue for the Postal Service.  At the Redondo Beach branch, Stoller said, volume has actually increased.

Postal workers across the Beach Cities have been working longer and later hours. Often times a letter carrier will finish their route and be sent out again to pick up the slack on another street. Photo by Chelsea Sektnan

“The Postal [Service] can say there is less mail volume,” said Stoller. “But that’s not true — there’s more mail [at Redondo Beach], not less.”

The major financial problem the Postal Service is facing is not declining revenues, but a law that was passed in 2006 requiring it to prefund retirement benefits. According to Robert Keller, communications director for California Congresswoman Janice Hahn, this amounts to a $5.5 billion yearly for 10 years to finance health care benefits for the next 75 years.

The Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act of 2006 (PAEA) was largely intended to give the USPS more flexibility in changing prices and launching new products in order to more quickly adapt to changing market conditions. But the law – passed by a Republican-controlled Senate and House of Representatives that was decidedly adversarial to unions – also contained the provision requiring the pre-funding of health benefits through the establishment of a trust fund. No other agency – or private sector business – has such a requirement.

The USPS has operated with a deficit every year since the law was passed. Its last profitable year was 2006. The service has lost $20 billion in those four years.

“All of the USPS losses over the past four years come from this mandate,” wrote James Parks, an AFL-CIO member who has rallied other unions to the support of postal workers. “You cannot find another organization in the world…that pre-funds 75 years of benefits over a 10-year period. And it’s not just the overpayments, it’s the opportunity costs of having to hold that much reserve capital that cannot be used when times are tough, or to invest in more attractive services. This results from a 2006 law that was one of the last time bombs of the Denny Hastert-Bill Frist Congress.”

In mid September the Postal Service lobbied Congress on an extension of this year’s payment of $5.5 billion, to allow a few months to realign its finances. The extension was granted, but the Postal Service is still struggling with how to reconfigure its finances.

Postal workers across the Beach Cities have been working longer and later hours. Often times a letter carrier will finish their route and be sent out again to pick up the slack on another street.

“If the Postal Service was a private sector business, it would have filed for bankruptcy and utilized the reorganization process to restructure its labor agreements to reflect the new financial reality,” said Anthony Vegliante, chief human resources officer and executive vice president of the USPS, in a release in mid-August. “Wages and benefits for all employees represent nearly 80 percent of our costs. To remain solvent, we must negotiate contracts that address our total labor costs and enable us to downsize quickly to adjust toAmerica’s changing mailing needs while being fair to our customers and employees.”

The Postal Service is an independent government agency that is not funded by Congress but instead is managed like a private sector business, with two significant exceptions – by law, USPS is required to provide universal service and prevented from raising postage fees faster than inflation.

These constraints mean that the Postal Service is unable to adjust to economic realities, such as rising health care costs, by drastically cutting service or raising prices.

“While all of us have been taking great steps to reduce our costs, the health care cost is one we’re unable to address in its current model,” said Donahoe in a statement to USPS employees. A new proposal to employees asks them to consider moving away from the current Federal Employee Health Benefits Plan (FEHBP), one of the most generous federal health care plans in the nation, and move to a USPS-sponsored benefit. “By pulling this piece of our costs away from FEHBP, we’d be able to save about $500 million to $700 million a year.”

To make ends meet and keep the mail coming, the Postal Service has come up with several other options to cut costs. One option brought to Congress was to stop Saturday delivery, saving the Postal Service up to $3 billion a year. Another is to close post offices across the country.

USPS employee unions have not embraced such proposals.

“They want to close 3,000 or more facilities and 250 processing plants within next year [nationally],” said Stoller. “They are hell bent on closing facilities… that would be devastating.”

Under its current labor agreement, the Postal Service cannot lay off employees. Also, by law, the USPS is not able to declare bankruptcy, which would enable the service to void its labor contracts.

Unlike the service’s chief competitors, such as FedEx, USPS has little flexibility in operating its business.

A USPS truck out past dark on Curtis Ave in Redondo Beach. Photo by Chelsea Sektnan

“There was a poll taken this summer and many Americans favor reducing the number of days [of delivering] over other options of raising the price and things like that,” said Maher. “We’re capped by the rate of inflation and stuck between a rock and a hard place.”

Lines at the local post offices have been getting longer due to fewer employees. Also, the Redondo Beach administrative office – which handles lost mail claims, among other things — has been closed, creating service backlogs.

Residents are getting impatient. During a recent visit to the Redondo Beach main office, Redondo resident Riner Kaiser, waited in line for more than 10 minutes in the hopes of finding missing mail that was not delivered to his box at home, and the postal clerk was unable to located it. “I’m wondering how much of a system they really have,” said Kaiser. “If you can’t do your job, something’s got to give.”

At the Hermosa Beach post office on Pier Ave., customers have been surprised to see the doors locked and a “Closed for lunch” sign.

Cost-benefit

Postal workers are trying to make the best of a bad situation.

“They are out there with the dogs, the heat, the rain, they are on the front line,” said Lopez. “They check on old people, report crime. [To the supervisors] it’s about saving hours, not what you do.”

Maher, the USPS spokesperson, stressed that mail service should eventually return to more normal delivery hours after the current period of adjustment to route changes. He said that changes will enable to USPS to operate more efficiently.

“We have not laid off any employees during this,” said Maher. “We do have some temporary employees who are not guaranteed hours, and they may not be getting hours now. And many of our employees who are eligible to retire during these times choose to retire; they find it might behoove them to decide that it’s time to go… With fewer letter carriers our labor costs are reduced. When we find a machine that will do the work previously done by humans, that goes hand-in-hand.”

USPS was unable to provide data indicating recent changes in the number of temporary and permanent employees or how many retirements have occurred locally.

On Oct. 18, USPS announced that in 2011 it will increase letter stamps from 44 to 45 cents, increase postcard stamps by three cents and increase international mail stamps by seven cents.

“The overall average price increase is small and is needed to help address our current financial crisis,” said Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe in a release in October “We continue to take actions within our control to increase revenue in other ways and to aggressively cut costs. To return to a sound financial footing we urgently need enactment of comprehensive, long-term legislation to provide the Postal Service with a more flexible business model.”

Union leader Stoller feels that the steps being taken are not nearly enough to help the employees or customers. Currently mail is not being processed in a timely manner, forcing carriers to stay out late and supervisors, clerks and custodians to work jobs they aren’t trained for.

“The little post offices are what the people know,” said Lopez. “Their concern is, ‘Where’s my mail?’ It’s all about saving hours, not about the people. At some point if you don’t have the hours or the people, how do you serve the public?”

 

A circular-filled dumpster outside the Redondo Beach Main Post Office. Photo by Chelsea Sektnan

Part 2

Postal drop

Tensions boil at post office, leading to hostile work environment and mail dumping allegations

Originally published on Nov. 17, 2011 at the Easy Reader News

Jointly reported by by Mark McDermott, Chelsea Sektnan, and James Whitely

 

Problems within the United States Postal Service have led to local postal carriers being forced to deliver mail late into the night and supervisors allegedly ordering the dumping of bulk mail at the Redondo Beach Main Post Office.

Interviews with more than a dozen mail carriers, who spoke anonymously due to USPS regulations forbidding critical comment on postal matters, reveal an office in disarray and suffering desperately low morale. Carriers say that reduced staffing, mail route consolidations, and confusion resulting from the implementation of an automated sorting system have resulted in repeated late-night dumping of presorted bulk mailers.

Photographs taken Monday morning by Easy Reader staff at the Redondo Beach Main Post Office appear to confirm these allegations. The photos show recycling bins and trash bins filled with bundled mail – specifically, the Local Values advertising mailer issued by the Los Angles Times Media Group and the PennySaver USA advertising mailer.

A circular-filled dumpster outside the Redondo Beach Main Post Office. Easy Reader Photo

Similar photos taken earlier this month and in 2009 – when the USPS also went through a round of mail route consolidations – have been submitted by postal workers as evidence that recent cuts to the number of postal employees have led to supervisors ordering that bulk mail be trashed rather than delivered.

“What’s frustrating is that the mistakes made in 2009 are being repeated now,” one employee said.

Employees have contacted U.S. Congresswoman Janice Hahn’s office with concerns over the alleged mail dumping and other practices occurring within the Redondo Beach office. Hahn spokesperson Robert Kellar said the matter has been referred to the Inspector General’s Office.

“We did receive information,” Kellar said. “We are forwarding it to the Inspector General’s office. And we will follow up to make sure an investigation is performed. It’s a serious charge.”

Federal law includes a specific provision outlawing the destruction or delay of mail by postal employees, punishable by up to five years imprisonment.

USPS supervisors at the Redondo Beach station were unable to speak to the allegations and referred the matter to USPS spokesperson Richard Maher. After conferring with Redondo managers, Maher said the matter would be investigated but that the photos likely show mail that was deemed undeliverable, duplicate, or excess by mail employees.

“I spoke to our senior manager at the Redondo Beach Post Office who verified that the mail in the dumpsters was undeliverable or excess advertising mail,” Maher said. “Mailers of Standard Mail [advertising mail] are aware that pieces that are duplicate, excess or undeliverable will be disposed of.”

The Los Angeles Times Media Company was provided copies of the photos. Nancy Sullivan, vice president of communications, said that the Times’ system prevents duplications.

“The Los Angeles Times Media Group does utilize the United States Post Service (USPS) to deliver Local Values in Redondo Beach and we are gravely concerned about what this photo appears to depict,” Sullivan said in a statement. “The Times will be working with the USPS to understand the circumstances and their plans to remedy the situation if necessary, and will join with the producers of the other mailers apparently disposed of to gain a full understanding.”
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Other allegations include that supervisors have set up a “dunce table” where employees limited in their ability to work due to temporary injury or permanent disability are required to sit without performing any work – apparently in an attempt to bore or shame them into submission and quit – while carriers who feel unsafe delivering in the dark have been ordered to return to their routes.

Barbara Stickler, the president of the National Association Letter Carriers branch 1100, said the union is investigating an array of concerns within the Redondo Beach Main Post Office.

“I do believe it is a hostile work environment,” Stickler said. “I do believe it is not the environment that either the Postal Service or the union wants in any of its facilities.”

Rise of the machine

Nationwide the USPS has been struggling mightily since 2006, when Congress passed the Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act (PAEA).

The Postal Service in many ways exists in the worst possible of worlds as a business. It is not funded by Congress, but is instead self-funded; yet the USPS faces the constraints of being a quasi-governmental agency that by law has to provide universal service and is still essentially controlled by Congress. Through PAEA, Congress loosened some of its restrictions, allowing the USPS more flexibility in setting its own prices and launching new products. But in so doing, Congress required its pound of flesh from the Postal Service: the new law included the highly unusual provision that the USPS had to prefund health benefits for the next 75 years in the next ten years.

Union observers called this provision a “ticking time bomb” planted within the USPS by the 2006, Republican-controlled Congress. The prefunding requirement cost $5.5 billion a year; the USPS has not turned a profit since 2006 and has lost an average of $5 billion annually in the four years since the passage of the law. Other forces are also at play, including the troubled American economy and what USPS CFO Joe Corbett this week described as the “continued and inevitable electronic migration” of the Postal Service’s most profitable product, First-Class mail, which has declined in volume every year since 2006 due to the rise of the Internet.

This has meant the USPS has needed to do more with less. Since 2006, the Postal Service has shed 100,000 employees from its current workforce of 700,000; in 2011 alone, the USPS reduced its work hours by 34 million despite an increase of 636,500 delivery addresses. Its strategy has increasingly been to rely on technology to replace human labor.

The Postal Service had particularly high hopes for an automated system – called the Flats Sequencing System – that sorts “flat mail” items such as large envelopes, newspapers, catalogs, magazines, and some forms of bulk mailers (Trader Joe’s ads, locally, for example). The USPS launched the program in 2008 to reduce sort times for flat mail prior to delivery, following a similar initiative taken in the 1990s, which automated the sorting of standard-sized letters and ultimately saved an estimated $5 billion annually.

The $1.5 billion FSS system is scheduled to deploy 100 machines in 47 locations nationwide. On Sept. 29, two machines went online at USPS central processing facility in Los Angeles, which serves the Redondo Beach post office.

In theory, the FSS system was supposed to reduce the amount of time letter carriers in Redondo were in the office from roughly two-and-a-half to three hours per day to between 45 minutes and one hour and15-minutes, thereby allowing carriers to be in the field as long as seven hours and 15 minutes. And so a round of route consolidations accompanied the introduction of the new machines; the Redondo Beach office, which serves Redondo and Hermosa Beach, saw its number of routes reduced from 113 to 85.

Neither the FSS system nor the route consolidations have worked as planned. A variety of problems have plagued the FSS implementation, including its inability to sort certain flat-mail items and what carriers say are often late-arriving and occasionally damaged flat mail shipments.

“Go to any customer in Redondo or Hermosa – the mail is shredded,” said one local carrier. “Ask any carrier.”

Carriers say they are still spending up to 2.5 hours in the office prior to getting to their new routes, which are now much enlarged and often in different areas than their former routes. Meanwhile, the computer-generated new route sequences have not always made sense in the field.

The bottom line is that, at least in the short term, the burdens on mail carriers have dramatically increased. According to USPS, the Redondo Beach office had already reduced its number of carriers from 143 in 2006 to 128 now, in addition to a reduction in mail clerks from 40 in 2006 to 25 now.

Stickler described the variety of factors at play – including the timing of the FSS implementation and route consolidations right as holiday catalogues are being shipped – as a “perfect storm” the result of which is a high pressure situation for mail carriers.

“On the one hand, we are still employed and still have really good jobs and are happy to be working for the Postal Service,” Stickler said. “On the other hand, the Postal Service needs to recognize that automation isn’t perfect, and you can’t just implement a new program and expect it to work out of the gate without glitches. And they are not balancing that with the time of the year, which is our busiest.”

“The machines aren’t working as well as they expected, so they are short staffed, because they didn’t hire, expecting the machines to work better,” she added.

One letter carrier said that things are likely to get much worse as holiday mail volume increases.

“The way they want you to carry mail, and the amount, is going to injure people,” the carrier said. “This is not going to go away. This is going to be more the next day, and more the next day. Your carriers are going to be dying. They are going to be buried in parcels, buried alive.”

Going postal

Every carrier interviewed for this article said that tensions are extraordinarily high at the Redondo Beach Post Office.

Most reported that the route and technology changes have been accompanied by increased supervision, both in the office itself and in the field, where carriers say they sometimes find themselves being followed by supervisors – something that is particularly rankling given the bigger workloads and shorter staffing of those doing the work in the field.

“We are so harassed now,” said one carrier. “They think this is our fault.”

Additional supervisors from the USPS L.A. District administrative offices have been working in Redondo, including regional postmaster Tyrone Williams, who has drawn the particular ire of several carriers for his allegedly aggressive managing style. (Williams did not return calls seeking comment for this story).

One carrier said that one day seven supervisors were in the office at the same time.

“I’ve never seen this many managers, every single day like this for two weeks,” the carrier said.

“The supervisors watch over us,” said another carrier. “I don’t know who is in charge – just a lot of people telling us what to do. I don’t think they know what they are supposed to do.”

Maher, the USPS spokesperson, said the supervisors are on site to help set Redondo’s problems aright. He said the USPS intended to fix any bugs in the FSS system prior to the holiday season.

“The Los Angeles District has brought in supervisors from other offices to Redondo Beach in order to fix problems and return service to normal as quickly as possible,” he said. In order to make adjustments to routes that may be too long, a supervisor must accompany the carrier on the route to determine what changes should be made to bring that route into an 8-hour status. Observing employees performing their duties and documenting the time and travel patterns of delivery routes is a normal part of managing operations.”

Meanwhile, many carriers find themselves delivering mail until well after dark, sometimes as late as 11 p.m. While they receive overtime for the additional work, most would prefer to return to eight hour days.

“When I walk through the door and the first thing I’m saying to my kids is ‘Goodnight’, that’s not right,” said one carrier.

A few carriers have reportedly been disciplined for returning from their routes late; others have reportedly returned with their routes incomplete due to darkness and been told to go back out and finish. One alleged that Williams specifically ordered the carrier back out. “He said, ‘Get back out there,” the carrier said.

Some described stress levels as being so high they worried about the onset of violence. More than one carrier has reported suffering from anxiety attacks and said there is a worry that somebody might “go postal.”

“If something doesn’t change soon, somebody’s going to get hurt or somebody’s going to go off,” one carrier said. “I’ve been in this office [longer than a decade]. I’ve never seen morale lower.”

Many feel unsafe delivering mail in the dark.

“You really can’t see,” said one carrier. “You can’t see holes in the street. People start letting their dogs out after dinner. Who do you think is coming to your door at 8 p.m.? There’s a lot of nuts out here, too – some might go off on you. I mean, women could even get pulled into a house and raped. Or somebody might rob us when we are in our truck in the dark.”

Stickler said the union has tried to reach out to carriers and let them know that they do not have to deliver mail in any situation they do not feel safe.

“They have the right to make a determination on whether it is safe or unsafe to be out there,” Stickler said. “Should management try to intimidate them, I would be more than happy to defend this right – at some point, it’s no longer reasonable to be out there. If you, as a carrier, think the answer is to bring the mail back, we’ll deal with whatever management tries to do. But they are creating a difficult environment by the intimidation factor they are using trying to keep the employees out there longer than they should.”

Several carriers described what they called the “dunce table” where disabled or injured employees are stationed. One carrier said that those at the table previously did light work, such as sorting, but lately have been told to do no work whatsoever or they are given an outdated Postal Service manual to read.

Stickler said these tables are part of nation-wide USPS practice that was used in 2008 and 2009, when it was defeated by union grievances. She said the practice has only recently returned, and suggested it was a way of intimidating employees or to enable to Postal Service to claim that it is unable to find work for the employees and shift them to Department of Labor Worker’s Compensation disability rolls.

“Really, there are some people at that table that could do some work, some casing of the mail or sorting…Management is trying to get them, quite frankly, out of the Postal Service,” she said.

Maher said that the practice is called “Stand By Time” and is a legitimate timekeeping operation in which the employees are paid but there is no appropriate work for them to perform. He noted that Human Resources searches for appropriate work for these employees in other offices within a 50-mile radius of the office before they are moved onto Worker’s Comp rolls.

“There is no intimidation intended,” Maher said. “Employees are being paid in full by USPS as contractually required, and are required to be present in case work within their medical restrictions is available.”

A circular-filled dumpster outside the Redondo Beach Main Post Office. Photo by Chelsea Sektnan

A circular-filled dumpster outside the Redondo Beach Main Post Office. Easy Reader Photo

The most serious allegation made by carriers is that mail is being illegally dumped. Not every carrier interviewed had knowledge of this alleged practice. Those that did said that it is a practice that has occurred in previous times of stress within the Redondo Beach office. One carrier said it has occurred sporadically over the last four years; another said the most dramatic previous instance occurred in 2009. All believed at least some supervisors had direct knowledge of the practice.

“They don’t tell the carriers to do it, and if we did, we would get in trouble,” a carrier said. “So they do it after hours so that we get the rest of the mail out on time.”

Almost all the allegations centered on bulk mail, although one carrier suggested other mail is sometimes improperly disposed of, as well. Three different bulk mail advertisements are delivered by carriers in Redondo Beach and Hermosa Beach: the LA Times Local Values, the PennySaver USA, and Valassis “RedPlum” direct mail. Photos taken this week showed Local Values and PennySavers trashed. Carriers pointed to the fact that they were still bundled as significant, suggesting it meant that the mailers – which are individually addressed – could not have been returned “undeliverables” since the bundles had not been broken open. Bulk mail agreements do not stipulate a return to sender.

Maher said that Redondo Beach Post Office managers examined the photos taken by Easy Reader and determined that all the mail had been legitimately deemed as waste mail. He said that employees sometimes re-bundle mail that has been returned undeliverable.

“We would investigate that regardless, but at this point, just because the fact the mail is bundled does not mean that it wasn’t determined by employees to be undeliverable or duplicate,” Maher said. “So I have to take the employees’ word at that. As I said, they could have rebundled there. Or oftentimes we’ll get duplicate mailing, especially as our mailers adjust to these delivery routes – sometimes they’ll send us duplicates of the mail as they process the old routes and the new routes together. So there is a lot of situations that could have occurred and at this point in time I can’t determine what did occur other than the manager says everything in the dumpster was verified as undeliverable or duplicate Standard Mail, which mailers understand is disposed of.”

PennySaver officials did not return phone calls by press time to comment on the disposal of their mailers. The LA Times identified its mailers in the dumpsters as Local Values packages that were delivered to the Redondo Beach Post Office on Tuesday, Nov. 8. They had requested the mailers be delivered by Thursday, rather than the usual Friday Local Values delivery, due to the Veteran’s Day Holiday. The USPS technically has a delivery window of two to nine days for Standard Mail but the Times reports that successful Friday delivery is estimated to occur 85 to 90 percent of the time, with the balance on Saturdays.

Sullivan, Times vice president of communications, stressed that the packages arrive at the Redondo post office “route ready” based on schemes provided by the USPS Central Data Facility in Memphis, Tennessee.

“It’s important to note we do not do the scheme sequencing,” she said. “For instance, the Redondo Beach Post Office is required to send new scheming to the Central Data Facility, which in turn supplies us with the updated information. Also, there are checks and balances in place to ensure the circulars we are mailing adhere to USPS guidelines.”

Sullivan also said that the Times believes “whatever issues may have occurred in Redondo Beach last week to be isolated to that specific area.”

Maher said he did not find it credible that any supervisor would risk his or her career by throwing out mail illegally. He also noted that PennySavers are sometimes delivered using a system in which the mailers are not individually addressed but rather are delivered in bundles accompanied by a separate package of individually addressed cards (often with the “Have You Seen This Child?” missing children postcards). In this case, the carriers combine mailers and cards when delivering mail, Maher said, and sometimes the cards and bundles don’t match up in numbers.

“Some bundles of PennySavers may never be opened if we receive more of them than the addressed postcards that are used to deliver them,” Maher said.

The PennySavers visible in the Easy Reader photographs, dated Nov. 9, do not appear to be those utilizing cards. Individual addresses are identifiable on the mailers strapped in the outside of the bundles.

A carrier who examined the photographs said that bundles did not appear to have been re-bundled. Carriers who return with undeliverable mailers, the carrier said, do not themselves re-bundle mailers but drop them in a bulk mail undeliverable bin.

“I don’t think they are telling the truth,” the carrier said. “Those bundles don’t look like they’ve ever been opened.”

Paul Boyle, a senior vice president with the National Newspaper Association of America who specializes in Postal Service Issues, said he has never heard of an instance of the USPS illegally dumping mailers.

“I can’t imagine a legal hook or angle – this is paid postage,” he said. “You expect them to go to the last mile – they say they deliver to each house, and that is what they are proud of. I can’t imagine….These are addressed to non-subscribers, and newspapers spend a lot of money on technology to make sure these are sorted and sequenced according to addresses. So there is really no reason whatsoever these should not be delivered.”

Postal workers have been working well into the night lately because of longer routes and an inefficient sorting system. Photo by Chelsea Sektnan

Part 3

Political mailers and long routes force USPS mail carriersout late, again

Originally published on November 15, 2012 at Easy Reader News

 

Postal carriers are once again delivering mail well past dark in the South Bay, leading to high levels of stress and increasing concerns over safety.

The United States Postal Service has been inundated with political mail in the past weeks, forcing mail carriers nationwide to work long hours walking the streets well past dark. Employees see the influx of mailers as a problem, but expanded routes as the real issue. They are worried the problem will persist throughout the high-volume holiday season.

“This week and last has been extremely challenging for the USPS nationwide due to a huge amount of political mail being sent at the last minute before [this] week’s election,” said Richard Maher, USPS spokesperson.

According to Maher, deliveries in many parts of the Los Angeles area have been finishing deliveries as late as 10 and 11 p.m. .

“We’re exhausted. We’re working 10 to 12 hour days on our feet,” said a postal worker in Redondo Beach who wants to remain anonymous.

Another worker simply said, “This is very dangerous.”

Last year the Easy Reader reported that due to route consolidations and a newly mechanized Flat Sequencing System (FSS) that sorted “flat mail” poorly, postal workers were working longer hours. The FSS was intended to create greater efficiency and thus allow for larger routes, but instead had created backlogs. To compensate, supervisors were allegedly ordering the dumping PennySaver and the Los Angeles Times Local Value circulars in the trash.

PennySaver and Los Angeles Times Local Value circulars in a dumpster outside the Redondo Beach Post Office. Photo by Chelsea Sektnan

Maher said that the photographs Easy Reader staff shot of the dumped mail likely showed undeliverable mail, deemed duplicate or excess by mail employees. Carriers interviewed anonymously for the story, however, denied that the mail was undeliverable. Other allegations included a charge filed by the local carrier’s union that supervisors had created hostile work environment and forced employees to return to finish their routes after dark.

In late July, an arbitration ruling was released that said a previous supervisor at the Redondo Beach branch, David Azolas, engaged in conduct that constituted sexual harassment and bullying to intimidate, threaten, humiliate and demean multiple employees. The union alleged that the violations extended back to 2005, well before any action was taken in May 2010. It also said that the Los Angeles district postal management knew or should have known about the problem as early as 2009 or sooner and that there was evidence that local management covered up Azolas’ conduct from LA District Management. Employees, the union reported, were bullied and intimidated by him, making them afraid of retribution if complaints were filed against him.

The postal service was ordered to issue a written apology to the employees at the local post office that stated that management will act proactively to prevent such conduct from occurring in the future. Azolas was also barred from ever supervising any letter carrier wherever he would be assigned. Two post office managers were demoted for covering up the complaints, and Azolas was fired in May 2010.

However, postal workers have said that the intimidation and hostile work environment is ongoing, but with different supervisors. One employee who was pegged as being especially hostile was recently removed. According Barbara Stickler, the president of the local National Association of Letter Carriers, the employees have assurances from the district that they are making changes, but postal workers are still complaining about another aggressive supervisor.

“We don’t have a grievance history on her,” said Stickler, about the current employee. “At this point of time she’s just an employee people don’t like for whatever reason. Could be that she’s too direct, or rude, or even just holding them accountable to rules they’ve never had to abide by…. You’re innocent until proven guilty.”

Mahler said that routes were adjusted to normal volumes but with current election mail and pre-holiday volumes, most deliveries in the Los Angeles area are running overtime. Letter carriers say they are not allowed to leave their routes when they don’t feel safe later into the night.

Stickler said that one of the reasons the carriers have been out late in the recent weeks is because the FSS that is used to sort flat mail was unable to sort the glossy political mailers.

“What we found out during the primaries is the machine wouldn’t feed the mail properly,” said Stickler. “So it goes to the letter carriers to sort instead of being ready to go out the door. The time and length of the route is based on the mail being sorted by machine, not by humans.”

She also said that she believes that the postal service should have planned better and should have hired temporary help earlier, before daylight savings time and after-dark deliveries became a problem.

“During times like this, USPS and its employees will do whatever it takes to get the mail delivered,” wrote Maher in an email on Friday. “The Postal Service plays an important role in the election process and our objective is to deliver all mail the same day it is received in a delivery unit.”

Employees say that nothing has changed and even with route changes they are still forced to deliver late into the night.

A postal worker was reportedly bitten by a dog while delivering mail in the dark, and the dog owner gave the employee a fake phone number for follow-up information. “It’s unsafe, anybody can attack us in the dark,” another employee said.

“Last year they screwed up; this year they screwed up, too,” said the same carrier.

South Bay USPS mail carriers were followed during their normal routes throughout the summer to ‘assess’ the routes and the carriers. Photo shot in July, 2012 by Chelsea Sektnan

The Redondo Beach branch set out to review and change the routes over the summer by supervising mail carriers while on their routes. They followed them in white Ford Focus cars and the supervisors trailed the mail carriers while on their route.

“They’re making sure they’re working safely and effectively,” said Maher in an interview in July. “Often times we want a witness to what is going on and often they have to supervise the training.”

He also said that route reviews were in process, but were not finalized. According to Stickler, the supervisors only evaluated 20 of about 60 routes.

Employees reported feeling bullied by the practice and questioned the use of the cars and the extra employees.

“They didn’t evaluate enough,” Stickler said, who also explained that the supervisors have the right to go out and follow a carrier any day.

Maher said that USPS is hiring temporary holiday help, but the process takes several weeks with interviews, background checks and training. Stickler said that the temporary employees should be on the job soon, and that both management and the union are trying to find creative solutions to make the routes more efficient this year. One suggestion was to assign mail carriers to do “parcel runs” and dedicate them to handling packages.

“The good news is the package business is growing,” said Stickler. “It’s great news for the company, but we have to recognize the fact that they take a little more handling and most don’t fit in the mailbox. We are looking and talking about creative ways to deal with the influx so they won’t be out as late as last year.”

According to Stickler, the postal carriers’ contract usually allows employees to work as many as 12 hours in a day, but in December the contract says they can work as many hours as necessary. Carriers also have the right to bring mail back and finish the next day. “The rule of reason needs to come into play and every carrier needs to make a determination based on his or her route,” Stickler said.

Redondo Beach hasn’t been the only area with late-night delivery issues. Stickler said that Santa Monica has been having even more problems than the South Bay.

“It is not the postal service’s intent to do late deliveries,” said Stickler. “But the employees need to take care of themselves, work safely and make the best decisions they can.”