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.
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.
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.”ER