Delivering complaints

Jul 21, 1999 at 12:00 am

Tammy Paul usually delivers mail in Clawson. Two weeks ago, however, she was part of a contingent taking this message to an arbitration panel in Washington, D.C.: Automation is making the job more difficult and dangerous for the U.S. Postal Service’s 315,000 letter carriers.

"There is an increase in trips, slips and falls," she said. "Dog bites and back strains are up, too. Carpal tunnel injuries are way up and I can tell you that for me, personally, there are days where my elbow is so sore that I can’t even lift a soda."

The nation’s letter carriers have been working without a contract since November. With contract talks and mediation failing, the contract terms will be decided by an independent, three-person arbitration panel.

The testimony by Paul and other members of the National Association of Letter Carriers was intended to convince arbitrators that letter carriers have earned a raise – in part because the flow of mail and delivery complications have increased as result of the Post Office’s embrace of new technology.

"Postal automation has not taken a single job duty or responsibility away from letter carriers, not even a one," NALC Vice President William H. Young told the panel. "Automation has only added to both the mental and physical challenges faced by letter carriers."

In an interview with Metro Times, Paul agreed that automation increased the workload for letter carriers, in part due to machine errors. "We’re not in the office as much, but the machines can’t read names, address changes, etc., so we have to make decisions out in the field of what to do with mis-sequenced mail," said Paul. "It used to be we could make these decisions in the office with management, or pull signature forms for certified mail, now we have to do this in the field."

The trip to Washington, as well as an informational picket campaign letter carriers staged in June, were part of the NALC’s attempt to gain a four-year contract that provides a 3 percent raise increase each year.

Two other postal services unions previously agreed to new two-year contracts that grant a 2 percent raise the first year and a 1.4 percent raise the second year.

The letter carriers, however, say they are bearing the brunt of an increased workload and are pinning their hopes on binding arbitration. They claim that the U.S. Postal Service has generated $5 billion in profits over the past four years, and that workers deserve a share of that pie.

Before that, the Postal Service operated in the red, beginning in 1971, racking up a $9 billion debt. The profits in recent years have gone toward paying off that debt.

"From 1971, the letter carriers have always asked for a wage increase," said Thomas Newman, a Postal Service district manager in Royal Oak. "There has never been any correlation between their request for increased wages and whether the Postal Service made or lost money."

Postal Service spokesperson Greg Frey told reporters in June that the agency had to stay competitive with the private sector, and that any raises had to be evaluated in that context.

Base pay for letter carriers is between $26,000 and $37,000 per year.

Newman acknowledges the intensive labor performed by letter carriers, but said they don’t work harder than other postal employees.

"I think automation changes the way the letter carriers do their job," said Newman. "In the ’60s and ’70s, letter carriers were on the street for five or six hours delivering mail. When the mail volumes shifted, they were spending more time in the office. The automation returns the workload to what it once was."