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.
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”