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Route Adjustment Process Needs a Complete Overhaul
All Options Should Be Considered, Including Evaluated Routes and Measured Routes
By T.L. Righter, July 10, 2004
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The National Association of Letter Carriers (NALC) plans to have a spirited open debate about the route inspection process at the National Convention in Honolulu later this month. NALC's Executive Council has already developed a concept that they believe will "break the anger created by the old system." However, the concept includes only minor adjustments to a system that is totally backwards in regards to modern management principles and basic human motivations. The Executive Council's general recommendations include random route selection, using a carrier's average office and street times, and improvements to computer generated data. However, for the good of the Post Office and the general welfare of letter carriers, an entire new process of adjusting routes needs to be actualized

The current process pits carriers against management and management against carriers in a system where basic human and organizational motivations are totally at odds with one another. For many letter carriers, who are paid by the minute and hour, the basic motivation is to stay on the clock as long as possible to secure a greater paycheck. Managers, of course, want carriers to accomplish their daily duties in as little time as possible. As a result, the delivery workplace is divided between two sets of goals and people, resulting in confrontations, accusations, anger, and occasionally (rarely) violence. Unfortunately, the basic underlying concept of the delivery method is flawed, and minor adjustments as proposed by NALC's Executive Council will have little effect on the currently poisoned workplace.

First, I must say that there are no easy answers to the problem of route adjustments. And I applaud the Executive Council for confronting the problem and encouraging an open debate. With that said, I would like to propose a new approach to the route adjustment process.

A Tale of Two Routes (A True Story)

Several years ago, Carrier A and Carrier B had very similar routes. They each delivered in the same neighborhood to houses built by the same builder. Both carriers delivered to 309 houses situated on lots that were all the same size. The two routes received very similar mail volumes. Basically, the two carriers each had about the same amount of work as the other. It was about as fair as it gets at the Post Office.

About four years ago the first of several route checks (in a long time) came around to their post office. Carrier A, an honest, hardworking carrier, delivered his route in a diligent manner during the route check. Carrier B, a less than hardworking carrier, used every trick in the book to make it appear that his route was longer (in time) than it was. He walked slower during the route check and spent more time sorting mail into his bag at each park point. The results: Carrier A's route was increased to 330 deliveries, but Carrier B's route stayed at 309 deliveries. The same thing happened a year later during another route check. Carrier A's deliveries increased to 360, while Carrier B's deliveries stayed at 309. Last year, when routes were adjusted "using a second set of numbers" (not actual route check data), Carrier A's route increased to 390 stops while Carrier B's route increased to 330 stops. Is all of this fair to Carrier A? In a nutshell, he is doing more work than Carrier B. As a result, not only is there tension between carriers and management, but there is resentment between carriers. Work harder, get more work. Work slower, do less work.

Now, there are carriers who will say that the longer route is what Carrier A gets for "running his route" and managers who will say that Carrier B is a thief. Both are logical points of view in this convoluted system. The underlying problem to this disparity is the premise that routes should be adjusted in part based on individual effort and performance. This is a point that is vigorously defended by NALC, and utilized by the Post Office. Basically, this means that every letter carrier in the nation has a different workload. Carriers who are faster work harder and longer, and carriers who demonstrate that they are slower, work less - for the same pay.

A New Approach

This convoluted system is difficult and costly manage. Because this is a system based on negative controls, instead of positive rewards, the USPS feels that it must spend many millions in controls to manage the system. Costly controls include computers and software (DOIS for example) and barcodes on routes. Contrast this to the rural carrier's system. They need little supervision and the accompanying costly controls because their work process is based on positive rewards. (Basically, rural carriers are paid a certain salary based on an annual evaluation of their route. As such, rural carriers have incentive to finish their routes in as little time as possible, since they will be paid the same whether it takes them five hours or nine hours to complete their daily duties.)

The Problem With Evaluated Routes

Rural carriers will readily admit that the evaluated route system has its drawbacks. Notably, many rural carriers believe that the USPS "holds back" mail during route counts, then after the route count is over and route adjustments and salaries are set, the USPS will solicit new ad mail from advertisers, thereby increasing the rural carrier's workload, but not their pay. This supposed tactic is one of the main points NALC officials cite in objections to the evaluated route process for city carriers. Nevertheless, evaluated routes should be part of the debate at the National Convention.

Measured Routes

My recommendation is that all carriers be tasked with the same workload, as near as possible, instead of the workload being based on individual effort and performance. As such, all carriers would be paid exactly the same for doing the same amount of work. My recommendation is based in part on a system used by Canadian letter carriers. In Canada, routes are adjusted in part by measurements, for example the physical distance between delivery points. (If a Canadian letter carrier believes that a route is out of adjustment, the carrier can request that a supervisor remeasure the route.) Measurements and standards would need to be developed, including time standards for distances between walking and mounted delivery points, etc. With measured routes, carriers would be paid a set salary, not by the hour and minute. Workplace tensions between craft and management and between craft and craft would virtually disappear, as would the need for costly oversight programs. With measured routes, carriers would be motivated to finish their routes as soon as possible, instead of trying to log as many hours as possible, thereby reducing overtime costs for the USPS. Overall, I believe that all routes should be based on fair and standardized measurements, to ensure that all carriers perform the same workload for the same pay.

(What about overtime/splitting down routes? Basically, Canadian routes are broken down into one hour segments, based on their measurements. Based on these measurements, each segment has a certain pay rate. For example, carry a certain hour on Route 8 and get paid the rate of $22.45 on undertime (under 40 hours) or $33.68 at the overtime rate.)

Several years ago (about five years ago), the USPS tasked post office managers with measuring representative routes in their areas. Route distances were measured with wheeled measuring devices, and this data (which hopefully now resides somewhere at USPS HQ) could be used for statistical data in formulating measured routes.

The concept of measured routes might present a few challenges to overcome - such as what to do about full coverage mailings (Canadian carriers are paid a certain amount for each full coverage they deliver). But overall, the measured routes concept has many advantages, including standardized work, standardized pay, positive motivations leading to a positive work environment, and the elimination of negative and costly controls.  


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