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This is one of a series of first-person accounts of how COVID-19 and shelter-in-place orders around Monterey Bay are affecting us all. If you would like to share your thoughts about living under the sheltering sky send your essay to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By Tom Lane
It was September 3, 1985, the day after Labor Day. I was 21 years old. A busy day, and my first day as a United States Postal Service employee. A mailman. The morning was a blur. Post-holidays are always hectic at the USPS.
How did I get here? I knew very little about being a mailman. But I needed to make a very early career change. From 1982 until September 1985, I worked as a hotel banquet set-up person, basically getting dining and conference rooms available for various groups. It wasn’t a physically tough job, but it was demanding. And the hours were scattered. Three hours of sleep was kind of normal during busy times of the year, like summer and Christmas. By 1985, there were only three of us on the job. Luckily, my best friend was in charge. The work was steady, but the pay was barely above minimum wage. And in the summer of ’85, I could tell that moving up to a higher-paid job would be a long shot.
At some point I saw an ad in the paper about postal jobs. I was interested right away. Took a test with hundreds of others and then forgot about it. Then one day in July ’85 a letter arrived with my test score and an offer for a job interview. I was still skeptical. If I didn’t get the job, that was okay because I still had the hotel one. But a few days later, I got the call that I was accepted. A few more tests later and there I was, right on the workroom floor as numerous carriers and clerks zoomed by me. By the time I started in the mid-’80s the workforce was a combination of military veterans (some from Vietnam) and younger 20-somethings like me. The work was steady and paid more than the hotel job I gave up.
By 1988 I was a full-time employee. By 1991 I had my own route. I stayed on that one for 15 years. I moved routes in 2006 and stayed on that one for another 14 years. That is where I stayed until this year.
I spent my whole postal career delivering in one city, Pacific Grove. The city turned out to be a good fit for me. Not a busy town at all. A place that likes to bill itself as the “Last Hometown.” Lots of good folks there. Funny thing about PG is that I knew very little about the town when I first started working there. But delivering in one town for more than 34 years? That was something that I was proud of. Kind of like an athlete playing his whole career for one team.
From 1985 until 2020 I’ve seen the Postal Service change in dramatic ways. Automation came around the mid-’90s. Routes expanded. The military veterans I started with were now retired, changing how things looked inside our office.
The biggest change occurred in the 2010s when the layers of command within the USPS expanded. Local postmasters and supervisors became hamstrung in how they could run their offices. Layers upon layers of “district managers” began to take over. And escalating small mistakes with threats of termination became the new normal.
Modern technology also played a big part. With GPS, management knew where and mostly what you were doing while out of the office. Discipline was handed out more often, the likely result of local supervisors feeling pressure from above to meet unrealistic expectations.
An even bigger change happened in the early 2010s. First-class mail began to drop as people started to pay their bills online and send fewer personal letters. Sometime around 2012 I noticed the number of packages starting to rise. Even though the Internet had been around for a decade, it was the rise of Amazon that really became the driving force within the USPS.
With less first-class mail to deliver, management expanded the routes, just as packages were picking up steam. There were days when my truck was so full, I couldn’t fit all the packages. Trucks were another issue. Outdated for this package era, too small and always breaking down.
Amazon is now king in 2020. Its package business basically runs the Postal Service. This 2020 pandemic has made things even more intense. It’s Christmas every day.
I made up my mind to retire sometime in the fall of 2018. With a longer route and hundreds of packages daily, my body was starting to falter. Back and foot issues that I easily brushed off didn’t go away as fast. Stuff that I was able to avoid for some 30 years was finally taking its toll.
The shortage of employees at our office meant more weeks without a day off (except Sunday) and longer hours. I’ve never worked so hard. I always thought when I reached the No. 1 spot in office seniority, things would be a lot smoother. It just didn’t happen. It was definitely time to jump off this never-ending cycle. So in late 2018 I penciled in May 2020 as an end date.
I leave with no bad feelings toward the Postal Service. I met a lot of wonderful customers and employees, many of whom are still and always will be friends forever. And I’ve seen my fellow employees work their butt off to keep the USPS afloat. They are hard-working “essential” employees who are just trying to make it through another crazy postal day. I worked with so many colorful characters in 30-plus years that I often say I could write a book on my life in the USPS. I miss the daily laughs and just good friendship that we often take for granted while we are working.
A month after I retired, a new Postmaster General, Louis DeJoy, was named, a friend and donor to President Donald Trump and the GOP. This immediately set off alarms among us long-time Postal Service employees. Republicans have been trying to privatize the USPS since I can remember. Installing a Trump crony only heightens the worry among employees.
Now, just a few months before the November elections, Trump is waging another war on the Postal Service. The COVID-19 pandemic has states looking to expand mail-in voting. The USPS Board of Governors proposed additional funding for the upcoming election. But Trump is blocking this, saying that mail-in votes lead to fraud.
This is bogus, of course, as voting by mail has been going on for decades and no evidence of widespread fraud has ever been found. In this pandemic year, with many states trying to make mail-in voting easier, Trump is trying to stir up a problem that was never there. Having worked through many election cycles, I can tell you that the USPS makes political mailings a top priority.
I’m 56 years old. Some have said that’s too young to retire. But I felt much older while working. And that wasn’t a great feeling. Thirty-four years and eight months. Isn’t that long enough?
Despite its problems I will always be proud to tell people I worked for the Postal Service. As we’ve seen during this pandemic, the USPS plays a big part in the lives of millions. I’m retiring with a clear mind and no regrets. Looking forward to what life throws at me next. And that’s a pretty cool feeling.
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