Letter Carrier

U.S. Postal Service (Staten Island, NY)
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Interview Date: 01/26/08

Interviewer: Tejas Gawade

What is your job description?

I am Letter Carrier for the United States Postal Service.

How many such Letter Carriers are there?

In Staten Island alone, there are almost 500 Letter Carriers. So, that gives you a pretty good estimate of how many there might be in New York, or even the United States.

And how long have you been doing this?

I have been doing this for 23 years. I started as a Letter Carrier in Manhattan in 1985, and then I transferred to Staten Island the following year.

What are some of the duties you perform on a daily basis?

My daily duties include delivering mail and sorting mail, including unaccountable, registered or express mail. I also deliver parcels. We have a system where we have to scan every package, and the computer generates a tracking number that is used to track the package as it travels along its route.

What are some of the problems or decisions you face every day?

We don't really face too many problems or decisions. The day usually consists of doing the route and getting to know the people. The only decision you might face is when there is a package to be delivered and no one is at home. You can't leave it just at the door, because someone might steal it. So, you might choose to give it to the neighbors or leave it in the backyard. The more time you have on the job, the fewer problems you have, I think.

What kind of hierarchy is there with the Postal Service?

Basically, there are clerks and carriers, which are two different classes. You can also enroll in a supervisory program, and then you can really go up the ladder if you so choose.

What would you say you have learned from this job?

I guess the most important thing I have learned is how to deal with people. Over the years, I have realized that you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar. If you are nice to people, even if they are in a rage, it diffuses the situation. But if you have an attitude towards them, it just escalates.

You mentioned that you transferred between boroughs. How easy is it to transfer?

I think with my seniority, I am ranked about 94 or 95 on a list of 500 (all the Letter Carriers in Staten Island), which is great because I could transfer anywhere on Staten Island, get the route of my liking and still maintain my seniority. But if I leave Staten Island, I keep my government service time, but I lose my seniority. So, I would have to start as a sub-carrier again. Another benefit of the job is that they have mutual transfers, so I could transfer to Wyoming or even Hawaii. But like I said, you lose vacation time and the ability to pick your own routes, which is a perk I have now because of my seniority. Of course, the salary will pretty much stay the same. But, if you are working as a sub-carrier, you might lose the number of hours you were able to work in week. They might need you only for 20 hours, instead of the usual 40.

How much variety is there on a day-to-day basis?

There is not a lot of variety, actually. It is very cut-and-dry, and it is even monotonous sometimes. Sometimes, to break up the monotony, I do my route a different way. Of course, you cannot do that too much, because people are used to getting their mail at a certain time of the day. And if you are too early or too late, it is a major thing to them.

How many hours do you usually work?

I usually work from 7:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m., and that will be eight hours as required. Any additional time would be overtime, which is on my day off. That is the case because we deliver six days a week, and never on Sunday, as you might already know. The latest that I would ever work might be 6:00 p.m., so I might put in two hours of overtime on any given day.

Could you talk a little about the route you cover?

It's in Richmond Town. I cover what they call a mountain route, where you are not walking with a bag house to house. It is mostly curbside delivery, where I pull up the truck next to the mailbox and just reach out. Getting a route is based on seniority, so someone with only one or two years of experience will probably not get the most convenient route. I know that when I started I had some pretty bad neighborhoods in St. George. So, you have to work your way up, and the route that I have now is pretty coveted because it does not require much physical exertion.

What are some of the benefits of the job?

I think the health benefits are great. Also, when you first start out, you get two weeks of vacation time. But, now I am at top pay and get five weeks of vacation, which is incredible. So, what I like to do is take three weeks off in the summer during the hottest time of the year, and one week off in the spring and in the fall each. So, it really breaks up the year if you take out that much vacation time.

How does the salary increase?

When you are a sub and you rise up, you get what are called step increases until you reach top pay. Once you reach top pay, you get cost of living increases, in addition to any other government increases.

Is there a reward system for good work?

There is not really a reward system, per say. The management might come up with silly incentives, like movie tickets. Once they came up with a crazy idea where if you don't call in sick for an entire year, you can take a day off at any time of the next year. Of course, you have to use your own vacation time. Now, if I wanted to take a day off, I could just call in a sick day. So, there really is no incentive in that sense. The post office is sort of like the cart before the horse. In a lot of ways, they are not really up with the times. As for bonuses, supervisors get them. We get Christmas tips from our patrons, which could be anywhere from $5 to $100. That comes as a result of us being nice to our customers.

Has the job affected your social and family lives?

I love the job, actually. I mean, it is a job that is just 20 minutes from home. I can start early and be home early, whether or not I am putting in overtime. I am home to my family by 5:00 p.m. on any day, which is phenomenal because very few jobs can claim that. I know that it is human nature to grumble about what we don't have, but when you think about it, it really is a lot.

How much stability is there in your job?

Yes, there is definitely a lot of stability! It is a government job. If I steal, get into a fistfight with someone on the job, or my truck rolls away while I am driving I could be fired immediately. But those are really the only ways that I could be fired. And even if I am about to be fired, I am given a letter of removal, and then I have to go through arbitration. It is basically a long, drawn out process. It is not like the public sector, where you could just come in one day to work and find the pink slip. There are Unions involved, and you have to really go through a lot to be fired.

When do you expect to retire?

My projected retirement is at age 53. I am 43 years old now with 23 years of service, so that brings me closer to a minimum of 33 years of service. But you cannot collect social security until you are 62, I think. So, at 53, I would only get a pension. That is obviously not enough to survive. Also, in ten years, my kids will still be in school. So, I think I might put in 40 years of service, which is twice as much as the minimum required from city employees. Cops and sanitation workers need to put in a minimum of 20 years. But it does get easier as you work along. So, maybe by the time I have put in 40 years of service, I won't be working too hard.

How have changes in technology affected the job today?

There are a fewer letters being mailed now, compared to when I first started working. During Christmas, especially, we would have trays and trays of letters because everyone would send Christmas cards. It is still a significant amount now, but not as much, because the most common way that people correspond today is through email. So, that really cuts into our workload. On the other hand, the Internet has proven beneficial for us. Nowadays, people do more online shopping , which is why we get a lot more packages than we used to. So, even if you are losing in one aspect, you are gaining in another. But the overall volume of mail has noticeably decreased, especially first class mail. There are still a lot of catalogues and junk mail, but that is just pennies compared to dollars. The big money is in the express mail and the packages. Basically, we are trying to earn back business that other private shipping companies have commandeered.

What do you mean by that?

I mean their overnight services are really the bread and butter. If you can charge 17 or 18 dollars per item or 6 to 7 dollars per package, whereas charging 47 cents per letter, you will make a lot more money. One interesting thing we do is that I have someone on my route that runs an Internet business. They mail 150 or so packages every three weeks. So, the post office gives them all the packages for free, and they print out the labels on their computer with a coded postage that they affix to the box. Then, they just send us a message online to schedule a pick up. Along my route, I simply pick up the 150 packages. This way, it saves them a trip to the post office, and the money is charged right to their credit card. So, in that respect, the postal service is trying to get its business back.

Would you say that the field is growing or shrinking?

I think it is definitely shrinking. It is tough, because it is not what it used to be. There are always talks about privatizing the post office. The government is always talking about it. And they try to minimize the importance of the Unions when they bring in transitional employees, and don't pay them health benefits. That is the way it will work in the future, I think. Hopefully, I am not there to see it.

What would you say have been the most satisfying and frustrating aspects of this job?

What is frustrating is being pushed around at the job. It seems that the supervisors make their bonuses based on our productivity. It is kind of like poker in that they have the figures on how much you can do, and they are always trying to push you harder and harder.

As for what is satisfying, I guess the best part is getting to know the people on your route, and to see their kids grow up every day. You become sort of a fixture in their lives. I know mailmen who have been invited to weddings and birthday parties of their customers. So, in that respect it is very satisfying. Personally, I enjoy being an outsider and not so much an insider. I enjoy being my own boss, without being in charge of other people or having to deal with other people. Basically, your route is your own domain. The faster you can get it done, the more time you really have to yourself. On the other hand, if you are a supervisor, you are kind of like a babysitter or a magnet for others. Bad news rolls downhill, so the higher you are, the worse it gets. But I enjoy doing what I do.

What kind of education is required to be a letter carrier?

In terms of education, I think just a high school degree is required, and your high school grade point average does not even matter. The only time that the test varies is if you were a veteran and have served in the military, you may get an extra 5 or 10 points to your test score. And that also counts towards your retirement, because if you have served four years in the military, they may count that time as time served in government service, so you can retire four years earlier.

What kinds of skills are required, especially for someone who is just starting out?

I would definitely say that memory is the most crucial skill. Most of the job involves your casing ability, because you get mail that comes in trays and buckets. You have to case and sort it every day. So, you have to pretty much know how to case quickly and efficiently, and the best way to do that is to simply memorize it. You have to be good with numbers and addresses and things like that.

What kind of training is involved?

You take a test on which a lot of memory questions are tested. They may give you an address like "41 Brooks Place" or "141 Brooks Place," and they may ask you a second later to repeat the address you just read. I took it a long time ago, sometime in the 1980s. Although, it has probably changed now, I think memory was tested a lot. They tried to mess with your brain by changing numbers or addresses. So, instead of "Brooks Place," it would be "Brooks Pond Place." On the test, you have to score above a 70, and the higher you get, the more you have a chance of being placed. If I remember correctly, I think I scored really low. I was surprised to be even called in. With the training, you are given a 90-day probationary period where they teach you, but everything comes naturally over this period. And if you are not fast enough to case your own route, tear it down and deliver it, then you will not make it.

Are there any downsides to your career?

I guess the bad thing is that we are sort of like cows that come in and know what stall to go to. So, we don't need a lot of supervision. Unfortunately, there are a lot of supervisors. Basically, we have too many chiefs and not enough Indians. And we don't need supervision at all, because we know what we have to do. So, we rarely hear from them unless there is a real problem.

Do you have any advice for someone starting out as a Letter Carrier?

I would say don't do it. You know, just from being there for so long, I can see how the job has changed and how the pressure has increased. You would think that the longer you are on the job, the less pressure you would have. But, even with my seniority, I am always feeling more and more pressure. So, I can only imagine what a new employee is going through. And what is a new employee going to go through ten years from now? I always tell the younger 20-year-old employees who come into the job that it is a good job for now, but don't make it into a career. Do something else that has more benefits than we get. And it is a shame to say that, because there are so many good perks in this profession. But, it seems like the upper management is just running the job into the ground, and they are burying us in it.

Is there a kind of person that is not well-suited for this job?

It is kind of hard to say, but if you are not conscientious, you will not do well. On a daily basis, as you are delivering packages, you have a scanner you use to scan packages and then know the order that they need to be delivered in. If you skip a passage accidentally, you will have to go back on your route, deliver it and basically waste time. So, there is a lot of preparation that goes into it, because you have to be aware of what delivery is coming up. If someone is not really organized and cannot think ahead, then this job is not really for them.

What kind of skills do employers look for when candidates are interviewed?

I think personality is definitely important. You have to be outgoing, and no one wants to work with someone with a chip on his shoulder or an attitude. I think how well you score on the test determines what kind of skills you have.

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