Monday, May 07, 2018

Rural mail carriers reeling after a decade of budget cuts

With fewer choices for rural retail, small-town residents increasingly shop online to buy everyday necessities. FedEx and UPS find it hard to make a profit in rural areas, so rural mail carriers have a bigger job than ever, one they're often obliged to do with less funding and fewer staff. The U.S. Postal Service is most critical as a public institution in rural areas, "but rural areas are also where the agency’s recent cutbacks have been the most debilitating," Jake Bittle reports for The Nation. "As the USPS has phased in workforce cuts over the past decade, it has created what amounts to a labor shortage at the country’s smaller stations. Across rural America, routes are vacant, offices are understaffed, and turnover rates are high." 

Some of the problem stems from a 2006 law that required the USPS to pre-fund retiree benefits; the financial blow prompted management to cut the workforce deeply and reduce investments in infrastructure. Nearly a dozen rural carriers told Bittle that their routes have gotten longer and their loads heavier because of the labor shortage, sometimes requiring them to work past dark on unlit roads. They say they've also had to work on days off, work unfamiliar routes far from home, and work double-length days for no extra pay, Bittle reports. 

The reason they're not paid extra for those long hours is that, instead of getting paid hourly, rural carriers are paid a flat rate based on how long their route should take, without regard to how heavy the mail is. "The pay system currently estimates that it takes about 30 seconds per parcel, which seems to some carriers almost comically low when they’re carrying a 50-pound bag of dog food or a cage of baby chickens to a farmhouse doorstep," Bittle reports.

That's not the only difference between rural and urban mail carriers. Most rural carriers drive their own cars, since regular mail trucks sometimes can't handle country roads. Also, "they are represented by a separate union, the National Rural Letter Carriers’ Association, which lacks the funding and thus the leverage of its city equivalent, the National Association of Letter Carriers," Bittle reports. 

Though the work can be dangerous (RuralInfo has an In Memoriam page to honor rural carriers who died on the job), rural mail workers told Bittle that the work was difficult but rewarding until recently. But in 2010 when e-commerce became more widespread and package volume increased dramatically, rural postal workers became increasingly overwhelmed by a job they say has not changed to keep track with reality.

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