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Mailman Where's my Check? - The Death of First Class Mail Delivery Standards and what this Means for America
Don't Shoot Me, I'm only the Messenger
I've been delivering a new route since late September. This is not very long by postal standards, so I am still getting to know the people on the route and they continue to eye me cautiously to see if I am going to measure up to the last letter carrier, who was there for about nine years. Although there are some wonderful people in these neighborhoods I deliver to daily, there are a few tough customers who have lingering suspicions and are predisposed to blame all of their mail delivery problems on the "new guy."
Week before last a female customer whose street I had just just delivered drove up to me on the next block to inquire about a check she was expecting from Texas. Although she was doing her best to be civil, I could see impatience bursting through the seams and knew that she was prepared to blow a fuse in my face if I gave her any sort of provocation. "This has never happened before," she growled at me, a not so subtle insinuation that the missing check must be because the new letter carrier (me) had somehow misplaced or misdelivered the item. I spoke to her gently, in the tone I often reserve for angry dogs I find yapping at me loudly in front yards, and somehow managed to keep the pressure cooker from bursting open. My explanation was that the Postal Service can't possibly track every letter (a surprisingly high percentage of the public actually think we do) and reassured her that the missing check would probably come in on Tuesday following the Martin Luther King holiday. The conversation ended amicably, though with lingering tension.
Many unsatisfied postal customers like to throw that line "This has never happened before" in the face of the new mailman for shock effect, even though it probably happened just a couple months ago. All the same, as the customer drove away I remembered a few things I wished would have occurred to me during the course of that edgy discourse. I finally realized that perhaps this truly is the first time her check hasn't arrived on time, and the delay could have been due to new postal regulations initiated on January 6th of this year that have significantly lowered delivery standards for first class mail. Her poor little check,sitting lonely and friendless in some massive Texas mail processing center, just might not be getting the same kind of attention it got before. The new rules are allowing the poor fellow to age a bit before being given its boarding pass and booked on a flight to California, and in the process the "Service" part of "Postal Service" is being seriously degraded, to the detriment of the American people the agency is Constitutionally mandated to serve.
So Where is my Check?
Since starting this article a few days ago the reduction of first class mail delivery standards have taken a more personal toll. It's one thing to complain about a late check when that check belongs to a postal customer, and quite another when that check contains funds that one of your own family members depends upon to pay the rent.
My son, who lives 500 miles up the coast in San Jose, receives a student loan check every semester from the registrar at San Jose State University, where he is enrolled. Although he has probably spent hours standing in line in the financial aid office trying to rectify the situation, the University bureaucracy continues to send the check to me in San Diego, probably because the loan is in both of our names and I am the one with a job. Every semester he nervously waits for me to deposit his check so he can have money to spend on those silly little student fraternal frivolities such as rent and food, and probably survival staple items like beer as well.
This semester my son's loan money was sent on the 22nd of January, with plenty of time to deposit the loan check in my account and then send him a personal check for the amount, right? But apparently since first class mail standards have been held for ransom in a misguided and misdirected effort to keep the post office from bleeding red ink, this process is no longer a slam dunk at all. I didn't receive the check until January 27th, five days later, during which time my son's phone calls became increasingly frequent and frantic. "Where's my check, where's my check?" he cried out with growing volume and intensity.
I understand that we can't very well expect mail from San Jose to zoom 500 miles down the coastline overnight, but five days seems ridiculously sluggish. I could have driven up the coast myself, dropped off his check, stayed overnight and then driven back in less than half of those five days. As it stands now he only had four days left after I got the check to pay his rent, and although the money finally landed in my hands I wasn't going to trust the post office to deliver my personal check to him by the first of the month. Although I can on occasion shake the pom-poms with the loudest and prettiest of the postal cheerleaders (even though I don't look that cute in a skirt), on this occasion I have foregone the Postal Service and decided to bite the bullet and just pay the 25 dollar bank transfer fee so he can have the money in his account by the first. That's what it's coming to, folks.
Sounds like a Personal Problem, Right?
Many of you out there are stroking your sophisticated, well groomed, wizened beards and saying to me "Okay, Mel those are some fine anecdotes, but you're just one mailman complaining about the mail being slow. How do we really know that this is happening all over?"
In response I say that it hasn't even been a month since the first class mail service standards were reduced and people across the fruited plain are already starting to write angry letters to their Congressmen. In response to this public outcry, on January 27th Republican Dave McKinley from West Virginia and Democrat Paul Tonko from Minnesota sponsored House Resolution 54, which urges the Postal Service to "...take all appropriate measures to restore the service standards that were in effect as of July 1, 2012." Representatives on both sides of the aisle have climbed on board with this resolution, demonstrating that whether the state of residence is red or blue Americans are accustomed to receiving their mail in a timely fashion. People like that lady on my route, whose livelihoods have put in limbo because of a missing check or some other urgent piece of correspondence, are now starting to flood the phone lines and stuff the mailboxes servicing Capitol Hill.
In 2012, when the new first class standards that took effect in January 2015 were approved, 42 percent of all first class mail was delivered overnight, an additional 27 percent within two days, and another 30 percent within 3 days. That meant only a paltry one percent of first class mail was delivered in as long as 4 to 5 days. Since the new service standards took effect, both my customer's and my son's checks both fell into this one percent category, meaning that within three weeks or so of being enacted the reductions are already having detrimental repercussions on people's lives and livelihoods.
The reduction in First Class mail delivery standards goes hand in hand with the deceptively named "Network Rationalization" process, whereby 141 mail processing facilities across the country have already been shut down and 82 more are scheduled to be closed this year. With fewer processing plants to handle the first class mail there is no way the delivery standards that have been in effect for the last 40 years can be maintained, and hence we have the reason why outgoing Postmaster General Pat Donahoe was driven to change the regulations governing first class mail.
Postal Customers patiently waiting by mailboxes across the width and breadth of the land would be wise to beware of confusing euphemisms like "Network Rationalization." Although such phrases have been deliberately devised to sound agreeable to the ear, in reality they disguise a darker, more insidious agenda.
Dictionary.com defines the word "rationalization" as follows: "to ascribe (one's acts, opinions, etc.) to causes that superficially seem reasonable and valid but that actually are unrelated to the true, possibly unconscious and often less creditable or agreeable causes." In this sense rationalization may not be a euphemism at all, but may actually perfectly describe the motives governing the measures taken in the Postal boardroom at 1 l'Enfant Plaza.
What are these "...less creditable or agreeable causes" behind the reduction in First Class mail standards, the plot to end Saturday mail delivery, and this Network Rationalization scheme? Politicians have long been in the back pockets of corporations like UPS and FedEx, both of whom would receive inestimable benefits by getting rid of the postal competitor. Eliminating service standards through the manipulation of Congressmen and their agents (said agents including certain butts in the seats around the Postal boardroom table), is another step down the path to eroding the public's confidence in the Postal Service and bringing about the privatization of what is still the most affordable and reliable delivery service in the world. Since the current rate to mail a package is approximately four times higher with the Post Office's competitors, it stands to reason that the rates for first class mail would rise by approximately the same amount under privatization, meaning that the stamp that costs you 49 cents would increase to about $2.00. Imagine the bite that stack of eight or nine bills sitting atop your kitchen table will take out of your bank account at two bucks a pop. So I'll just switch to online bill pay, you say - and I guess that's okay if you want to run the risk of getting your bank account hacked online when you submit your payment information. More and more the old reliable "snail mail" is looking like the safest, most secure option, but if the Constitutionally guaranteed Postal Service is dismantled, good old Snail Mail will be a considerably costly choice for everybody.
Cutting the Rural Lifeline
This reduction in First Class Mail delivery standards is particularly painful in rural areas, where residents living out on the dusty ends of dirt roads look upon the Postal Service as a lifeline. Unfortunately, that life giving intravenous feed has been cut to a slow drip and the patient is flailing about in the hospital bed, begging for mercy.
In an attempt to preserve the sanctity and reliability of the Postal Service in general, and in particular to protect the US mail lifeline in his largely rural state, Senator Jon Tester of Montana stepped forward on January 30th to express his concerns in a meeting with incoming Postmaster General Megan Brennan. Senator Tester told her that for Montana residents "...the Postal Service's delivery standards have become a disaster for USPS and for the Montana families that rely on the Postal Service to deliver medication, election ballots and ultimately, to stay connected." The Senator has a very valid point. A Montana rancher living 50 miles from the nearest CVS or Rite Aid cannot readily run to the drugstore to refill a prescription. This rancher, like millions of Americans living out on the back roads, has trusted the mail for many of life's necessities, and this reliability has eroded quickly since the implementation on these new service standards. Said Tester to PMG Brennan "I live in the sticks and I'm telling you the Postal Service is critically important for rural America."
It's not just in the "sticks," Senator, that people are suffering from the effects of sluggish mail delivery, but the negative ramifications are certainly multiplied in those places where roads are sometimes unreliable and the distances between settlements are vast.
Conclusion - So Write your Congressman!
On Tuesday after the MLK Holiday the customer I introduced early in this article finally received her greatly anticipated and overdue check, and there was peace in the Postal valley once more. As she started to walk away, happily reunited with that once lost, now found monetary instrument, I took the opportunity to make those points about the new postal delivery standards that had slipped my mind before. Her garage is actually a poling place on election day, so I assumed she may be a civic minded citizen inclined to take action on important issues.
Most of the time when people say "So Write your Congressman!" it is simply a rhetorical device that means "I don't really care so please get out of my face." But as I said these words to her upon parting ways I really did want her to do that, and I want everyone reading this article who values timely, affordable, Constitutionally-guaranteed mail delivery to do the same. "The check's in the mail!" is another famous "I'm blowing you off" expression that may also be pertinent and may apply to you. But unless something is done soon, under the new first class mail service standards just because the check is in the mail doesn't mean you're going to get it in your mailbox anytime soon.