Two-Thirds of Rural Mail Carriers Are Being Hit With A Massive Pay Cut Calculated By An Algorithm

The newly-implemented Rural Route Evaluated Compensation System (RRECS) slashed rural carrier pay despite a worker shortage.
The Washington Post / Contributor via Getty

Two-thirds of rural mail carriers nationwide are scheduled to be hit with a pay cut of thousands of dollars annually and may also be assigned more work days, due to the implementation of a new algorithm that determines their salary and work schedule. The change, which has enraged many rural carriers, comes as the United States Postal Service struggles to hire enough rural carriers to reliably deliver mail to areas of the country.


“It’s crazy to me,” a rural carrier in Maryland who asked to remain anonymous to avoid retaliation told Motherboard. His annual salary was slashed by $9,000 and he has to work an extra day for every two-week pay period. “I’ll be working more and making less all while doing the exact same work.”

The pay cuts were initially scheduled for early April, but have been pushed back each pay period since for unspecified reasons, according to posts and comments on websites and forums dedicated to rural postal workers. The target of their ire is RRECS, or the Rural Route Evaluated Compensation System. It was designed to more efficiently calculate the number of hours a worker needs to deliver mail on their given route, but flaws in its implementation have resulted in most workers unintentionally under-reporting the time it takes to deliver the mail, resulting in pay cuts. 

In a statement, USPS spokesperson David Coleman said, “The compensation system for rural letter carriers is a nationally negotiated pay system codified in the parties’ National Agreement. The current modifications to the compensation system were the result of a previous interest arbitration proceeding and mandated by an interest arbitrator. The parties worked jointly for years to implement these new provisions and will continue to share data and information throughout the implementation process.” The union that represents rural carriers, the National Rural Letter Carriers Association, did not respond to a Motherboard request for comment.


USPS mail carriers fall under two different major classification systems, rural and city carriers. There are roughly twice as many city carriers as rural carriers. While they broadly serve the urban versus rural areas their names suggest, some rural routes are legacies from the pre-urban sprawl era, meaning some "rural" carriers work in relatively dense areas. Sometimes the two work out of the same post office.

Generally, rural carriers operate under more relaxed work rules than city carriers. For example, they don’t have to wear USPS uniforms—although some choose to purchase their own—and often drive their own vehicles. But the biggest difference between city and mail carriers is they operate under different pay structures. City carriers are hourly employees that get paid overtime for working more than eight hours a day. Rural carriers are paid a salary based on an annual tally of the mail on their route. The more delivery points and mail volume, the higher the pay. While far from perfect, this structure alleviates tension many city carriers face with management over whether the day’s mail volume requires overtime hours to deliver. The job is to deliver the mail, however long or short it takes.

At the center of this system is the route evaluation to determine the workdays per week and the route’s annual salary. This tally used to be done manually in which an inspector shadows the route. But the USPS recently instituted a new route evaluation system called the Rural Route Evaluated Compensation System, or RRECS. And it is the reason 66 percent of rural carriers, or some 100,000 workers, just had their pay cut.


Instead of manual route counts, RRECS relies on the daily mail count automatically tabulated as it passes through sorting machines at postal facilities, combined with handheld scanners the carriers have equipped with touchscreens, barcode readers, and GPS. Carriers must log all kinds of minutiae into the scanners, such as when they begin loading their trucks, when they set out on their routes, where they stop for lunch, and hundreds of other data points. All of that data is processed through opaque algorithms to evaluate routes. The terms of how RRECS would be implemented has been the focus of a decade-long fight between the National Rural Letter Carriers' Association (NRLCA) and the USPS, eventually settled by an arbitrator. 

In the endless, ample online discussion forums where rural letter carriers have been discussing RRECS—one of two pinned posts at the top of the USPS subreddit is currently “So your route got RRECed…”—it appears few if any carriers got trained on what RRECS is and how it would evaluate their routes. For example, many carriers would scan a package while sitting in the truck, then bring the package to the door while the scanner remained in the truck, because the scanner is difficult to hold while handling a large package. Carriers are given extra time to bring packages to doors, but by leaving the scanner in the truck, RRECS evaluated those deliveries as being done at the mailbox. If done over dozens of packages a day, RRECS could evaluate a route as requiring fewer hours than it really did.

Another issue is that RRECS evaluates routes using annual data regardless of who is doing the delivery. The mail is delivered six—and, in areas where the USPS has agreements with Amazon for Sunday delivery—seven days a week. Postal workers with permanent route assignments don’t deliver the mail every single day on their route, especially when taking into account vacations and sick days. On those days, substitutes paid by the hour fill in for their routes. Those substitutes have little incentive to do all the time-consuming data entry and parcel scanning to ensure the route is being properly evaluated through RRECS, yet the RRECS calculation is an average for the entire year, including substitute days.

The end result, according to figures the NRLCA sent to its members that have been subsequently posted in various forums, was a broad pay cut. Of the 81,665 routes re-evaluated by RRECS, 66 percent lost hours, resulting in lower pay. 44 percent lost more than three hours a week but only 14 percent gained more than three hours.

For his part, the rural carrier in Maryland has started looking for another job. “I shouldn’t have to twirl around three times just to get paid fairly,” he said referring to the new RRECS system. “It feels like working for Amazon.”