Author Mel Carriere has been a postal employee for 28 years, a postal blogger for 8, and a pain in the butt forever. Ask his sister.
Making The Postal Grade - Does it Mean Anything, Anymore?
Those of you younger employment seekers, fresh out of your Mama's diapers, searching for good wages so you can achieve escape velocity out of her basement, probably are not aware there was a time when the United States Postal Service was considered a premium job. But if you are 35 plus and reading this, you might recall the days when letter carrier or a clerk was a coveted position, a job there was considerable competition for.
When I first took the clerk/carrier exam back in the early nineties, the San Diego Scottish Rites center hosting the event was awash in candidates. There were hundreds of hopefuls on hand, and it was only one of a multi-day testing process. Sorry I cannot quote you exact figures, too much mileage on the mental odometer since then, but I seem to recall reading or hearing a figure of 20,000 job-searching souls, queuing up to contend for a couple hundred openings.
Those daunting numbers kind of killed my hopes, but I persisted because I was desperate. I prepared myself doing the address comparison and memory check exercises over and over again, and somehow managed to make the grade - with some veteran points to nudge me toward the head of the line too, I must confess. Meanwhile, thousands of challengers walked away disappointed, tossing their test results into the bin like lemon lottery-tickets, having missed the chance for perceived lifelong riches.
The reason why the struggle to access those coveted postal corridors was so fierce in that era is because, compared to other jobs that didn't require a college degree, postal employment meant a life of financial ease. It offered way above average pay, and nice benefits too. It was Willy Wonka's golden ticket. It was Ed McMahon handing you a fat sweepstakes check. If you're on the younger side, you probably won't understand those antiquated references either, just like you might not comprehend that a postal job used to be a pretty good gig, if you could get it.
Where have all the good times gone, you ask? Where are all those rock concert crowds in front of the Scottish Rites? Well - first of all the Internet has eliminated the need for sit-down, handwritten tests in a mass gathering. More importantly, the trophy at the end of the race isn't as big, and doesn't shine like it used to. The job has not kept pace with opportunities in the private sector, due to internal factors besetting the Postal Service, and external factors as well. The Covid 19 crisis has accelerated the process of turning this old gold mine into a ghost town. The unforeseen epidemic unleashed a series of economic reactions that have given a negotiating edge to private sector employees, an opportunity for them to squeeze tight-fisted employers. How long the leg up for private-sector workers will last is anybody's guess, but the disappointing truth is that, if you favor the security of civil service over the whims of the free market, your Granddaddy's Post Office just isn't the jackpot it used to be.
Where Did It Go Wrong?
So where did all go wrong? Who chopped down the beanstalk, without remembering to rescue the goose who laid the golden egg?
The writing was on the wall around the turn of the millennium, but the real landslide came during the economic crisis of 2007-2009, a period known as the great recession. If you don't remember Ed McMahon and Willy Wonka, you might recall watching the stock market going into free fall on television. Perhaps you were too young to understand what it was all about, just like, as a third grader, I didn't get the fuss over Watergate. I was just upset because the boring hearings preempted Gilligan's Island.
The sub-prime mortgage bubble burst during the latter part of the 2K's first decade, resulting in the erosion of net worth for legions of homeowners. The value of residential real estate across the country plummeted, fast as that that golden goose Jack shot for dinner fell out of the sky, when he should have put the riches from its gilded butt into his bank account, instead. The sticker price of my own home in Southern California - that chunk of God's overvalued Earth that only dependable postal employment got me a loan for, dropped from mid 500 to 330 thousand, just like that. This meant I could no longer refinance for extra bucks, and if I sold, I was going to wind up owing the mortgage company money. Uttering the word underwater was as taboo as saying Voldemort, back then - but long story short, I found myself in a bind.
Millions of other Americans were in the same straits. Having long enjoyed the boon of unlimited access to extra cash - just by dipping repeatedly into the seemingly bottomless well of inflated home equity, they now found themselves broke. There was no more excess income to spend on those little geegaws and gadgets they ordered on up and coming Amazon, or through the countless number of other e-commerce retailers that twinkled in the cyber-sky.
Will you be surprised when I tell you that the economic crisis trickled down to the Postal Service? The dearth of disposable dollars meant that people were ordering fewer products online, causing the depletion of a dependable revenue stream for the USPS. At the same time that the roaring flood of parcels was drying to a slow drip, technological improvements were undermining other sources of earnings. Even the old farts who used to write letters - having finally graduated from homing pigeons to dispatch their messages, were now learning to email, or text. To further exhaust the mail flow, online bill paying became a convenient way to avoid that long postal line - that excruciating ordeal of standing there fidgeting anxiously, while someone's grandma way up at the counter dug pennies out of her purse, one by one, to purchase a single stamp.
While the economic bust was munching a big slice out of the package pie, the volume of first class mail - then and now the Postal Service's most important cash source, was being strangled by technology too. It was a double sucker-punch the Post Office is still staggering from, a rope-a-dope that has kept us bleeding on the mat for over a decade.
In 2007, the USPS lost 5 billion dollars. By 2010, the annual leakage had increased to 8 billion. Package volume recovered, expanding every year as consumers substituted stores with cell phones, but mail volume continued to spiral downward, the enfeebled first class product cutting the biggest chunk from the bottom line. This mailing meal ticket fell from a historical high of 104 billion pieces processed in 2001, to 53 billion in 2020, pretty much being cut in half, rent in twain, over the course of two decades.
In Union contract negotiations conducted since the onset of the financial crisis, the Postal Service has pleaded poverty. The NALC and APWU, the two major unions that represent postal employees, haven't been able to successfully debunk the organization's bad balance sheet. The result for postal workers has been miserly wage increases that barely keep pace with inflation, if not actually deteriorating the buying power of its approximately 500K career employees. At the same time, minimum wage increases across the country, some states mandating more than others, means that the allure of the postal paycheck is far less impressive than it was in the past. A City Carrier Assistant (CCA), flexing his paystub in the mirror, can't impress his girlfriend as much as he could before. And then came Covid...
Bring Out Your Dead - Plague Parallels
A little history lesson here. Allow me to hearken back to the Bubonic plague that inflicted the known world during the years 1346-1353. They weren't keeping very good records back then, but an estimated 75-200 million people are said to have died during that epidemic. Scholars estimate the death toll at 30 to 60 percent of the world's population. Covid, meanwhile, has resulted in the demise of about .04 percent of humanity. Flimsy parallels indeed, but remarkably enough, there are similarities between the consequences the two diseases wrought across the multi-hued spectrum of Earth's inhabitants.
Despite the way the plague rolled rampant, mowing down wide swaths of human lives, it also wound up delivering benefits. The disease effectively ended the Middle Ages, and brought about the Renaissance. Along with millions of people dropping dead, it killed serfdom too. None of the uninfected were thinking about these future improvements as the wagons swung by, shouting "Bring out your dead!", but if you managed to survive, you thrived. It was a frightening, uncertain time, much more than our current epidemiological crisis, but the piles of human corpses paved a road to prosperity. In this, there are perhaps insensitive parallels that can be drawn between the Black Death and Covid.
The 14th century epidemic that decimated mankind introduced new opportunities for workers. Dukes, Earls and Counts across Europe, taking a head count of the remaining peasants on their estates, were desperate for hands to till the soil. The few serfs who survived were willing to do the work, but only in exchange for freedom from their bondage to the land, along with a decent wage they could use to bankroll their newly gained independence.
Is Covid 19 much different than Yersinia pestis? Well of course it is, we don't have 30 to 60 percent of potential employees missing from the labor ranks, like they did back then. However, the US government's response to Covid did make a significant number of workers decide to stay home, and stay on the dole. Wage-earners did their own cost-benefit analysis, then concluded that enhanced unemployment benefits were better than the starvation wages offered by the corporate sector. Another essential contributor to work force contraction was millions of working mothers opting to shelter in place to take care of their children, rather than leaving them to the mercy of daycare, with that greater possibility of Covid exposure. Mixed together in sum, these ingredients baked a cupcake-size employment cake. It was as when millions of victims of the ring around the rosies had been raptured from the economy. Once again the fields were fallow, the supply lines unattended, the factories clogged with back orders, and unfinished automobiles remained stalled on parking lots, for lack of people to make computer chips.
As the dissemination of vaccinations led to businesses reopening, many employers discovered they had to hike wages to get people off the couch and back into the office, the kitchen, the warehouse. McDonalds, Amazon, Costco and Target are but a few of the companies that have implemented, or have announced plans to implement, a $15 dollar an hour wage. Still sounds like a pittance, especially now that inflation from supply line issues has eroded the buying power of the dollar, but compared to the beggarly $7.25 minimum mandated by Federal law, it's a King's ransom. Here where I live in Colorado, the minimum is $12.32, but I drive past signs in the Panda Express window offering $15 for cashiers, and $16 for cooks. I saw one advertisement in a Wal Mart Subway shop announcing $17 an hour. For the first time in my knowledge, employers are having to pay higher than what local governments force them to, in order to fill the gaping holes in their ranks. Businesses are now shutting down not because of lack of customers, but lack of workers. The Covid crisis has reached the tipping point where stockholder greed has succumbed to necessity, letting Americans reap benefits, instead of reaping for serf wages.
From a postal perspective, the overnight largesse of Ebenezer Scrooge - not caused by the rattling chains of Christmas ghosts, but by the honking horns of money-flush consumers idling impatiently in the drive-thru line, means that the City Carrier Assistant option is not as appetizing as it used to be. Effective August 28, 2021, Starting CCA pay was upped to $18.51 an hour for Step BB, the category for new hires, rising to $19.01 after 52 weeks of service. This is better than that $15 at McDonalds or $17 at Subway, but is a couple bucks more an hour worth the exhausting work load?
Of course, a tenacious CCA who manages to stick around for two or three years will see that 19 dollar wage jump to $21 when he or she makes regular. But it's a long, thankless, sometimes icy cold, sometimes steaming hot road to conversion, and once there, what does the future hold in terms of employment stability? Does a new regular have a reasonable expectation of turning a job into a thirty year career, or will the exponential advances of technology put thousands of letter carriers back on the unemployment line where they started, all fresh-faced, rosy-cheeked, and full of hope. Will mailmen and women be as extinct as dinosaurs 5 years from now, ten years from now, fifteen years from now?
When I was fresh off the shelf 28 years ago, once while throwing letters into a set of gangboxes a prophet of doom hovered in the background, warning me that the Post Office was going to shut down in the next five years, due to obsolescence. According to him, I should be job hunting, because even then there were ominous portents shadowing the postal service. But here we are three decades distant from that downer encounter, and despite relentless, well-coordinated attempts to kill the USPS through privatization and impossible-to-meet pre-funding mandates, I'm still trucking. Even so, diving first class volume warns that the glory days of mail delivery are over. There may well be enough of a mail market to justify the continuation of this organization thirty years distant, but for the prospective CCA candidate, a lot of unsolved variables need to be puzzled out in order to get there. Are you willing to stick around and be puzzled?
Perhaps you're not looking long haul, maybe you view this job as a stepping stone to your next gig, something to put food on the table while you browse Indeed or Monster for something that pays better, and is more to your liking. In that case, the CCA job could be your cat's meow. Not only will you receive decent, though not outstanding wages, but if you can drag your tired butt over the CCA hump you will have access to health benefits. Although these are provided by most government positions, along with the more upscale jobs in the private sector, as a burger-flipper or convenience-store change-counter you're not likely to get them. Private-sector pay might currently be approaching a level equitable with letter carrier employment, but you won't be able to afford the luxury of getting sick there, even after you've been around a while.
Another factor to consider as you weigh your decision, is the degree of difficulty in the postal job. You'll never get me to paint a rosy picture, just to get you to raise your right hand and take the oath. The hard truth is that postal management is going to run your ass ragged. Your supervisors will quickly horsewhip the idea into you that anything less than the impossible is considered failure, and failure is not an option. Of course, if you can gut it out and keep your head bobbing above the water long enough to make regular, your workload will ease considerably. But in the meantime, you are going to be the poster boy, or the cover girl, for tired.
Not that expectations are any different in private industry. My son worked in retail for ten years, and he probably hated 9 years, 11 months, 2 weeks, three days, five hours and 27 seconds of that, after his despair and misery were calculated down to the decimal point. If that is your story too, you might actually take comfort in the lack of micromanagement that will be your new state of being, mostly working alone under the open skies of America's streets. After years of toiling within whipping distance of your immediate supervisor, or enduring the asinine questions and customer is always right bullying of unreasonable shoppers, you will breathe the sweet air of independence. As long as you can leap through the impossible hoops - and most CCAs manage to do so, you may feel relief swinging a satchel, compared to the waking nightmare that was your daily drudgery before.
Expect The Unexpected
Just like when the black death altered the course of human history 800 years ago, the Covid 19 epidemic created a black hole of employment that has sucked a sizable chunk of the workforce past its event horizon, down into a gaping pit where missing-in-action employees are still struggling to slog above the immense gravity. For people who cannot advance past the postal hiring process, or don't want to try, this means the opportunity is there for lifer private sector types to keep pace with their civil service counterparts, wage-wise.
On the other hand, obtaining a postal job is not the ordeal it used to be. Grasping the big brass satchel ring is not so much like passing through the eye of a needle, as like squeezing down the birth canal. The path is more wide open, the prospect for wearing blue not a pipe dream, but within the realm of reality.
Meanwhile, an uncertain future lurks over all members of the work force, private, government, and otherwise. If Covid-19 has educated us in anything, it is to expect the unexpected. Nearly two years ago, postal and non-postal people alike were sitting in blissful ignorance, when what looked like disaster struck. The systemic shock to society taught everybody that whether we want to start life as a professional mule humping the mail - sucking the teat of Uncle Sam, or remain in capitalism's thrall, jumping to the orders of the fat tycoon who prints our paycheck out of his own pocket, the unknown x-factor looms over us all, complicating our employment decisions, clouding our horizons. What else can I say other than don't jump in with both feet. Consider carefully, and good luck.