It’s National Postal Worker Day!

Image courtesy of  Carly & Art used under Creative Commons.

Neither snow, nor rain, nor heat, nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.

Inscription on Main Post Office, New York City, adapted from Herodotus.

July 1st is National Postal Worker day. I didn’t know that. Probably most of us were unaware of it. The Postal service and its employees  – over 600,000 of them – are an ever-present part of our lives, yet they seldom get the respect they are due.

While I was pondering what to write for this article, the doorbell rang. By the time I opened the door, the mail carrier was already back in his little vehicle, sorting the mail into my box. I thanked him. He smiled and drove off, because his job doesn’t allow him time to chat. I checked the parcel he’d for left me, a heavy package about the size of a large shoe box. It had cost $12 to send at a flat rate, and had been posted yesterday, over a hundred miles away.

That’s pretty darn good. I send packages often, using either the USPS or the private companies, depending on what it is. Fedex and UPS specialize in larger parcels. I knew that if this had been sent by either of those companies, it would have cost about the same, but I wouldn’t have had it today.

It Costs How Much?

The postal service delivers postcards, letters, flyers, bills, junk mail and greeting cards, as well as my parcel. A first class stamp currently costs 46 cents, with an extra 20 cents per ounce after the first. A postcard is 33 cents.

I checked what the smallest package possible – say, a letter  – would cost via the good folks at FedEx. It counts as any package under one pound. To send it to my father in law in Savannah, GA would cost $11.41. No disrespect to FedEx intended here – they deal in parcels rather than letters -  but that 46 cent stamp sounds pretty reasonable to me!

Way back in 1863, the year of the Battle of Gettysburg, a letter cost 3 cents per half ounce. What’s that, adjusted for inflation? I went to the trusty internet and asked what 6 cents in 1863 meant today. The answer – $110.31. Can that be right?

But maybe that’s an exception. After all, there was a civil war going on. So let’s go back fifty years, to a peaceful time (leaving aside the Cold War and the Cuban Missile Crisis etc) when typical Americans lived in nice new suburbs, drove Buicks, and listened to Elvis and the Beach Boys. A stamp cost 5 cents per ounce in January of 1963, and stayed that way for five years. Adjusted for inflation, that would be 38 cents today. Or 68 cents according to another calculator.  Either way, despite people’s complaints, stamps are not significantly out of line with the rise in the general cost of living – and may actually be less!

Hard Times

Image courtesy of striatic used under Creative Commons.

The Postal Service is facing difficult times. The USPS works under strict congressional mandates. It has to deliver everywhere within the United States. Private companies don’t have to do that, and often won’t deliver to your Crazy Uncle Duane’s cabin fifty miles outside Walla Walla, Washington.

The core profitable item for the postal service has always been the standard first class letter. Ask yourself, when did you last send anyone a letter? I’m not talking about paying bills or sending birthday cards.  I don’t have any idea when I last mailed a letter. That’s why the numbers have fallen. As recently as 2000 Americans mailed 103,526 million pieces of first class mail. Last year it had dropped to 68,696, almost a third less. And that probably answers my question; in 2000 I – being behind the curve – got internet access. And, since then, I have emailed almost everything.

The United States Postal Service is the only government service mentioned specifically in the US constitution. At the same time, it receives no federal funding, and  – uniquely  – is compelled to set aside 10% of revenues to cover all employee pension obligations for the next seventy five years. That means it has to cover the retirement schemes of employees who are not only not yet hired, but aren’t even born!

That means the postal service is under pressure, cutting back on jobs, services and post offices themselves. Being a postal worker has always involved working on a tight schedule  – those long lines at the post office aren’t full of patient folk with all day to spend standing there -  and cutbacks make things even harder.

I asked Carolyn, who serves the front desk at my local PO, how things were. “Looking forward to retirement,” she sighed. “Every day there’s something else to make us all crazy.” I try really, really hard not to be one of the things that makes Carolyn crazy – she’s nice, and tries hard to help – but over the eight years I’ve been going there, she’s grown less and less happy.

Frank Pawloski of St Louis wrote a letter to his local paper, the Post-Despatch, this week. He says –

“The men and women who work in our post offices are among the best workers in America. Every day, the letter carriers probably walk about 4 to 8 miles with a load of mail in their arms. In addition, they are outside in temperatures that range from below zero to over 100 degrees. They work in bone-drenching rain and at times they have to literally skate on frozen streets, driveways and sidewalks because of the sleet and snow.

I don’t think many of us would trade jobs with them under those extreme weather conditions. Yet the letter carriers are there six days a week performing their first-class services, quickly, reliably, professionally and for the lowest postage rates in the industrial world.”

Thanks to Postal Workers

Image courtesy of  Don Nunn used under Creative Commons.

So, let’s do something for postal workers.

Sherri Osborn, who runs the family crafts department at About.com has some ideas. Most of these are for kids – as you’d expect – but anyone can do these.

  • Make cards and give them to your postal carrier when he or she delivers the mail today!
  • Visit the post office and see if you can take a tour.
  • Give your mail carrier a special treat or glass of lemonade!
  • Write letters to your friends. (Remember what we said about the fall off in regular, first class mail?)

She has a page devoted to mail carrier-oriented crafts as well – make your own cardboard mailbox!

Okay, so you aren’t nine years old, don’t want to ask for a tour, and feel a little odd waiting by the mailbox with a jug of lemonade. What does Frank Pawloski say? “On July 1, when you see a postal employee, give them a great, big smile followed by a heartfelt thank you.”