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September 11th:
A Year Later, USPS Grapples With Old, New Problems

By T.L. Righter, 9/11/2002

The United States Postal Service (USPS) was in the midst of developing a Transformation Plan last September 11th when hijacked jets struck the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. The events of 9/11, and the anthrax attacks through the mail which occurred about a month later, have transformed the USPS in many ways, but not necessarily as envisioned in the Transformation Plan. Some observations:
  • The attacks accelerated the diversion of paper mail to electronic communications. Many companies, fearful of further bioattacks through the mail, are now asking how they can do without U.S. Mail altogether.
  • The anthrax attacks have particularly affected the way government offices receive their mail. Many government offices are now processing their mail offsite, and/or converting it to electronic documents.
  • The closings of the Brentwood mail processing facility in Washington, D.C. and the Trenton, N.J. mail processing facility due to anthrax contamination prompted postal officials to look at consolidating and closing other mail processing facilities. Postal officials noted that mail in these two areas was able to be processed by other facilities in the areas with little or no delays.
  • Despite the financial crisis precipitated by the attacks, it wasn't enough to get a flexible rates package (the centerpiece of the Transformation Plan) into Congress. The defeat of flexible rates in a congressional committee also spelled defeat for postal transformation in general for the near future. True transformation would have required systemwide solutions. Now, all the USPS can hope to do is effect transformation in small, piecemeal efforts. Moreover, due to budget deficits, the USPS has little or no money to move forward with remaining transformation initiatives.
  • Republicans are in no hurry to act. In fact, many are sitting back and watching as Potter and his staff feverishly scramble to cut layers of bureaucratic fat. Once the USPS has slimmed down a little, Republicans may move in to advance some privatization/private business initiatives. Democrats, fearful that any debates about the Postal Service's future would entail some private-sector methods, may be avoiding the postal issue for as long as possible.
  • The USPS has learned that the wholesale irradiation of mail is virtually impossible and that detection represents the best chance for the Postal Service to combat bioterrorism through the mail. However, despite spending tens of millions of dollars in the last year on bioterrorism equipment, the postal system still remains virtually unprotected, although the USPS is beginning to make some progress in this area.
  • Employee morale may be at all time lows. Many employees in Washington, D.C. and Trenton, N.J. have felt betrayed by their employer. In New Jersey, for example, the American Postal Workers Union is filing a lawsuit against the USPS for reckless endangerment. They assert that postal officials downplayed the anthrax threat in their facility, when in fact it was later divulged that there were millions of anthrax spores in the facility. The USPS hasn't discriminated in this area. A postal inspector who examined anthrax-contaminated equipment and who has had to fight for his life with undiagnosed anthrax symptoms has had to fight the USPS and the Department of Labor over his illness.
  • In addition to postal employees who have been directly affected by anthrax, many other employees have also been indirectly affected. For city letter carriers, less mail volume means longer routes. According to the Wall Street Journal, the USPS has cut more than 1,600 routes during the last year, despite new residential and business growth. The average carrier route now has 504 stops, notes the Journal. But letter carriers aren't complaining so much about the longer routes in general, but about the adjustments that were made. Many carriers are angry that routes have been adjusted beyond eight hours (for example 8 hours and 15 minutes), and adjusted incorrectly, as part of USPS efforts to increase efficiency.
  • Postal clerks aren't happy either. Clerks across the country are in a transition period as less mail volume, new automation equipment (including the new ASFM flat sorting machines), and reduced window staffing have reduced clerk staffing needs. Today, a significant number of clerks are waiting for reassignments to postal facilities as far as one hundred miles from their present work locations.
  • Rural Carriers may be the unhappiest of all postal workers. A recent arbitrator's decision has eliminated undertime and salaries. Rural carriers are paid a certain salary based on annual evaluations of their routes. The recent decision changed how routes are evaluated, significantly cutting rural carrier salaries. Many carriers lost thousands of dollars annually plus an extra day off each week or every other week. Rural Carrier anger comes from the fact they were the only group to suffer wage decreases during the past year. They note that letter carriers, clerks, mail handlers, and postal management all received wage increases and that rural carriers were unfairly taken advantage of to help postal finances.
  • The drop in revenues has exposed the high costs of a tech-heavy postal service. Today, the postal service still has many of its high-tech programs, but can't afford basic things like adequately staffing its letter carrier ranks or building new post offices in new communities. I believe that new communities would rather have a new post office and a regular carrier before they would want ancillary programs such as MSP scan points (barcodes on mailboxes to track carriers), DOIS (a Web-based - yes, Web based - time management system), a Mystery Shopper program and a host of other costly tech programs. Sure, these "tools" would be nice in a perfect world where postal revenues were limitless. But, first things first. Ten years ago the Postal Service could afford to build new post offices and have a regular letter carrier on every route, and somehow it managed without a Web-based time management system, for example.
  • A year later USPS leadership continues to manage but not lead. The U.S. Marine Corps, which knows something about leadership, teaches its Marines that leadership demands mission accomplishment first, but that troop welfare is a close second. Postal Service leadership has done a lot of managing this last year - some of it good and some of it shortsighted, but hasn't done much leading despite the unique opportunities presented. Managing is a lot about numbers, which is an important part of running a business. However, leadership is about people, the Postal Service's core asset and most important asset. Unfortunately, it seems that the Postal Service views its employees as numbers that need to be managed. The Postal Service will not be able to move forward without both management and leadership - mission accomplishment and troop welfare. I was pleasantly surprised to see Postmaster General Potter take some steps towards "troop welfare" in the days after September 11th and the anthrax mailings. But overall, a postal bureaucracy and culture still built around managing "numbers" killed any prospects towards overall "troop welfare", postal leadership, and moving forward together.


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