CAPITAL REGION — Some Capital Region mail carriers have been working extra hours this year, delivering envelopes and packages well into the evening.
The letter carriers union describes a cycle of mandatory overtime burning out workers and starting wages too low to attract replacements.
The U.S. Postal Service says the demands of the pandemic have been unprecedented and it is making extensive efforts to increase its workforce.
Asked about the situation in the Albany area specifically, where many other employers are raising pay to attract applicants in a tight labor market, a USPS spokesman didn’t indicate any plans to increase salary, which is set by national contract.
“Under the current employment contracts, I don’t see that this is going to change anytime soon,” said William Cook, president of Branch 358 of the National Association of Letter Carriers, based in Schenectady. “Frankly, it’s not a competitive wage for this region.”
NALC Branch 358 represents non-rural carriers in a large swath of northeastern New York, from the Canadian border to Cooperstown. Cook said it should have 480 members but currently has only 404.
The shortages of carriers are mainly in Albany, Schenectady and particularly Troy, Cook said. As a result, 12-hour days are not uncommon and some customers get deliveries only a few days a week, or not until mid-evening.
Meanwhile, the Postal Service earlier this month finalized a plan to slow its delivery times for first class letters, magazines and large flat envelopes starting Oct. 1.
Postal rates are also increasing — a first class stamp goes from 55 cents to 58 cents beginning today, and temporary surcharges will be instituted on packages during the peak holiday season, later this year.
LONG TIME COMING
Several unions represent postal workers. The largest are NALC, representing non-rural letter carriers, and the American Postal Workers Union, representing sorting machine operators, custodians, retail workers, non-local truck drivers and those who maintain trucks and sorting machines.
In the Capital Region, the staffing shortage appears to be greatest among letter carriers, but the phenomenon isn’t unique to this area, and it didn’t suddenly pop up this summer. Media reports in many other states have highlighted similar shortages this year.
“It’s been a long time coming,” Cook said. “Not just due to the pandemic, but the pandemic worsened it.”
Back in 2006, he said, Congress required USPS to create a massive reserve fund to cover decades of health care costs for future retirees — just as a major recession was about to hit and as revenue continued to decline amid electronic competition. Several years later, amid a streak of huge annual losses, USPS created a tiered wage structure that cut starting pay sharply, Cook said.
“So the new people we hire don’t last long, but career people are resigning too,” he said.
A Capital Region letter carrier who asked not to be named said the extra hours add up to good money: the pay rate jumps to 150% for eight to 10 hours in a single day and 200% beyond 10 hours. But it’s too stressful, he said.
There is a contract provision against working more than 12 hours in a single day, but he’s had to do so a few times this year. He knows plenty of others who have, too.
Cook said the 12-hour provision is there, but there’s also a provision that requires a carrier to follow a supervisor’s instructions. If the order is something along the lines of “don’t come back until you deliver everything,” that’s what the carrier has to do.
He or she can file a grievance after being ordered to work more than 12 hours, Cook said, and he knows of many who have. But the arbitration process is very slow and thus far hasn’t produced any results for carriers, he added.
“There are hundreds of grievances that have been filed in the Capital Region, hundreds,” he said.
Asked by The Daily Gazette for comment, USPS spokesman Stephen Doherty did not directly address the impact of personnel shortages on postal workers and postal customers. He did discuss the cause and attempted solution of the shortages.
“This has been an extraordinary year of unprecedented challenges given the COVID-19 pandemic and we continue to experience occasional challenges with employee availability,” he said via email. “We thank our customers for their understanding and continued support.”
USPS this spring announced its Delivering for America Plan, a ten-year, $40 billion investment in its infrastructure and employees with concurrent steps to control costs and raise revenue, including slower delivery schedules and higher delivery rates.
Its stated goal was to hire 100,000 people from January 2021 to January 2022; that includes 40,000 it hopes to bring on board starting next week for peak season.
From 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sept. 8, USPS will hold a hiring event at the Albany Main Post Office and Mail Processing Center at 30 Karner Road in Colonie.
Entry-level hourly wages are $16.87 for handlers, $18.51 for carriers and $18.69 for processors.
“The pandemic has challenged us, like all companies, with employee availability issues,” Doherty said. “We’re proud of our more than 640,000 employees who have stepped up under difficult circumstances to serve our customers and keep the mail moving.”
Cook pooh-poohed the salary figures, saying the woman who served him lunch in Glenville last week gets $20 an hour and UPS in Latham is starting people at $25 an hour.
“Maybe $18 an hour is OK in Des Moines,” he said.
NOT ALL ARE STRUGGLING
The picture is different for the American Postal Workers Union local in Albany, where membership recently has grown to nearly 600 members.
The Mail Processing Center in Colonie has no shortage of personnel now, in the off-peak season, Local 309 President John Tabak said.
But there were problems last year as Americans began to work and shop from home, and mail volume exploded at the Colonie facility.
“There was so much mail at the plant it was actually hard to move through the aisles,” Tabak recalled.
USPS installed two new sorting machines that handle 30,000 to 35,000 letters an hour in Colonie and expanded its workforce substantially, he said.
Shortages, when they happen now, are usually at the retail windows, he added.
After some period of employment, USPS converts a worker from non-career to career, with an accompanying increase in pay and benefits.
Tabak said USPS appears to have accelerated the conversion timetable for APWU members in Albany. In the last six months, 98 of his members were boosted to career and received significant pay hikes, plus full federal benefits, he said.
The National Postal Mail Handlers Union is substantially smaller than either the Letter Carriers or Postal Workers unions.
NPMHU Local 309, based in Buffalo and covering all of upstate New York, could not be reached for comment for this story. A memorandum of understanding indicates 32 NPMHU members were scheduled for conversion in Albany this summer, plus 22 in Buffalo, 46 in Rochester and 34 in Syracuse.
The carrier shortage within Branch 358’s large footprint is concentrated almost entirely in the Capital Region, Cook said, and seems to be worst in inner-city areas with greater threat of crime, perceived or real.
The carriers comfortable with inner-city routes tend to have grown up in cities, he said, rather than in suburbs.
But whatever the route, fewer carriers handling more mail adds up to the late mail delivery that some customers are now experiencing, Cook said.
The carrier shortage exists in Albany and Schenectady, he said, but is much worse in Troy. Half of the 40 delivery routes in Troy didn’t even leave the post office Aug. 21, he said.
Another factor: Letter carriers’ start time was pushed back an hour to allow more time for sorting, Cook said. That by itself doesn’t make the carrier work more hours, just later hours.
“The customers don’t see that hour delay,” Cook said. “What they see is carriers up on their porch delivering mail at 10 o’clock at night, or, on some routes in Troy, delivering mail only once a week.”