Chad thought he was going to have a good year. A rural mail carrier with the United States Postal Service in Florida, he became a full-time employee with complete benefits several years ago, giving him job security and decent pay. He knew there was a new pay evaluation system coming this year, but had been told by the USPS management it would, at most, reduce his pay by two hours’ worth a week.
“Things were set, my pay was good, I got my raises every year like I was supposed to,” Chad, who asked that his last name not be used because he’s not authorized to speak to the press, told Motherboard. “This year started out good.”
But, in the spring, the hammer dropped. Two-thirds of rural mail carriers took a pay cut due to the new system, called the Rural Route Evaluated Compensation System, or RRECS—a meticulously engineered, high-tech algorithm using thousands upon thousands of data points from automated mail counts and carriers’ mobile scanners that is intended to determine how much mail they deliver on their route and how long it ought to take them to do so. The goal was to more accurately calculate the number of hours carriers have to work to deliver the mail and, therefore, adjust their pay accordingly. Of the 81,665 routes re-evaluated by RRECS, 66 percent lost hours and therefore lost pay, according to figures released by the rural carriers’ union. And 44 percent lost more than three hours a week, above the threshold Chad was assured few, if any, would cross. About 14 percent gained more than three hours.
All of a sudden, Chad’s pay was cut by more than $10,000 a year, he told Motherboard. He’s now making the same dollar amount as in 2017, but after accounting for inflation, it feels like he’s taken a pay cut not just from what he was making at the start of the year, but from his 2017 salary.
“It went from being a nice check to paying my bills to barely paying for groceries,” he said. Like many of his colleagues, Chad has had to take a second job. When he finishes delivering the mail or gets a day off, he logs a few hours at a local hardware store if he can.
For many rural carriers, the RRECS pay cut has been the last straw. What has always been a difficult work environment driven by middle management that uses far more sticks than carrots and a numbers-based evaluation system has, for many, become economically untenable. Tensions in the post offices are rising, and in some parts of the country, working in the unrelenting heat is only exacerbating the discontent, which is directed not only at the USPS but at the union that represents rural carriers, the National Rural Letter Carriers Association (NRLCA)
As a result, a worker-led effort to decertify the NRLCA is gaining steam and popularity, with organizers claiming they have more than 10,000 signatures out of the 33,000 needed, representing one-third of the union, to hold a vote. At that point, the National Labor Relations Board would conduct a vote where workers could choose to keep the NRLCA, leave the NRLCA and join a different union which has offered to absorb them, or operate without a union entirely.
Don Maston, the president of the NRLCA, told Motherboard in an interview he is not interested in meeting with the people behind the decertification effort to sit across a table and hear each other out. “I’m more about educating individuals on what the truth is, giving them accurate data and information,” he said.
The NRLCA is putting out fact sheets painting those behind the effort as management stooges who are working to undo more than a century of labor wins for a union that was founded 120 years ago.
For some carriers, that message is having the opposite effect.
“I believe that was a huge slap in the face to all of us who paid dues,” said Matthew, a rural carrier in Texas who spoke to Motherboard and also asked his last name not be used, about the NRLCA fact sheet. “If they saw we were so unhappy with their performance, ideally they would have come out and said they would do better.” Instead, Matthew said, from his point of view “they’re like the abusive spouse saying, ‘You’re nothing without me, what are you going to do?’”
For as long as mail carrying has been a profession, rural mail carriers have always had their pay set based on a process called the “mail count,” a two-week period where the mail and the number of boxes they have to deliver are counted. Roughly speaking, the amount of mail and number of locations delivered to then get converted into a number of hours per week that amount of work is expected to take. Carriers are then compensated based on an hourly pay.
But this process has always had issues, said Don Maston, the president of the NRLCA. Most obviously, two weeks’ worth of mail may not be a representative sample. Also, many “rural” carriers don’t actually work in rural areas anymore, as routes that used to be rural are now exurban or suburban.
“The standards were becoming a problem,” Maston said, referring to the amount of time allotted to various tasks. For example, the standards had long assumed carriers could drive at 30 miles per hour on average along country roads between stops. But with increasing suburbanization, that is often far off the mark. “A lot of those standards were just pulled out of thin air.”
It was clear the standards had to be changed, but for years the NRLCA and USPS failed to agree to anything in bargaining. So an arbitrator was appointed to oversee the process and three industrial engineers—one appointed by the union, another by the USPS, and the third a mutual recommendation by the other two—were hired to design a new system. It took more than a decade to put the system together.
“It took longer than any of us thought it would,” Maston told Motherboard. “But they wanted to get it right. There’s a lot of data, millions of data points, feeding into it in the background, a lot of validation of making sure that the data used is the correct logic.”
While there was an undeniable need to update the standards, Maston “knew there were going to be some winners and some losers,” meaning carriers who had their route evaluations cut and therefore lost pay while others would gain pay. He says the union has been trying to educate carriers for years on what the new system might look like, how to do all their scans and mail counts to ensure they get credit for all the mail they’re delivering, and also educating them that mail volume is broadly dropping—most prominently because Amazon has created its own, separate delivery network and doesn’t use USPS nearly as much as it used to—so that any accurate count might result in fewer hours and less pay.
By Maston’s telling, the union fought the USPS every step of the way for the fairest system possible, delaying its implementation when it found errors or discrepancies, and preparing its members for what was to come. And, Maston said, ultimately, the USPS implemented the system and deserves scrutiny for its impact.
But speaking to dozens of rural carriers this year, as well as reading forums and subreddits dedicated to USPS and rural carriers, it is clear that at least a significant minority had a very different experience. They had a vague idea a new system was eventually going to be implemented but were led to believe its impact on pay would be minimal. Many report having little to no contact with their union representatives or receiving any information about proper scanning procedures or route mapping before it was too late. And they wondered what the point of having a union is if it doesn’t prevent its members from taking massive pay cuts.
“What’s less than nothing?” Matthew said when asked for his thoughts on the NRLCA. He stressed he is pro-union and glad to be in a union, but “ours just has no teeth.” Carriers are told to follow management’s instructions and file a grievance for any issues. If they think their route was improperly evaluated, they are told to file a grievance. But grievances can take months, if not years, to be resolved. “When later comes, you’ve probably already done what you’re not supposed to do,” Matthew said.
Meanwhile, some carriers are just as perplexed by the current standards as the old ones, which are largely shrouded behind an opaque algorithm. Carriers have to map their exact routes, down to where the door and mailbox is at each house along their route, using a GPS mapping tool that measures the amount of time it ought to take to deliver a package down to the second. But the GPS on the scanners they carry is not pinpoint-accurate, and sometimes wildly off depending on geography and topography. And the route data don’t take into account that different people deliver the mail on different days. If a carrier goes on vacation, gets sick, or simply has a day off, a substitute fills in, and the manner in which they deliver the mail can affect the pay for the regular carrier. In effect, someone else’s work is going towards determining carriers’ pay.
For carriers who feel like the USPS has pushed a flawed pay system to save money and a toothless union let it all happen, morale has reached what some describe as an all-time low, exacerbated by the punishing, unrelenting heat wave affecting vast swaths of the country this summer. The way they see it, the USPS is saving money by paying them less, but doing nothing to make the heat more tolerable. If anything, RRECS’ relentless tracking makes it even harder to take breaks to hydrate and cool down, despite the USPS’s messaging that doing so is critical to avoiding heat stroke. To add insult to injury, the USPS corporate office sent a message to carriers’ scanners last week, announcing “USPS reported $18.6 billion in revenue from April 1-June 30.” Carriers wonder why the USPS bragging about making that much money while slashing their pay.
Carriers say that the sum total of all of this is that most people are looking for new jobs, taking on second jobs, quitting, or simply no longer care about doing their jobs well. Matthew, the Texas carrier, said that what used to look like a career is now feeling more like a temporary solution. It no longer feels worthwhile to put up with a work environment he feels is hostile and contentious, a common dynamic at the USPS going back decades, for such a toxic corporation.
“Everybody knows if you get enough disgruntled people or people being abused in that sort of way, it does something to them mentally,” said Jamie King, a carrier in Florida who is helping organize the decertification effort. “And you can end up with a bunch of carriers who just don’t care anymore, and when you have people who don’t care, the organization doesn’t function like it should.”
Maston is adamant that the decertification effort reflects a vocal but unrepresentative minority, giving little credence to the idea that any of their grievances are legitimate.
“We just came back from our national convention that was in Grand Rapids, Michigan,” Maston said, “and there were well over 1,100 delegates there, probably close to 2,000 rural carriers. And it was not angry people shouting about RRECS.” I asked him if perhaps the people who spent money to attend the union convention might not be a representative sample of unionwide sentiment. “I wouldn’t say that,” he replied. “I would say the people that come to the convention are the most involved and the most educated.”
When asked what he would tell rural carriers considering signing a decertification petition, Maston said, “You need to really read and understand what it actually means to decertify….it is just beyond my understanding why somebody would think that would be a better route to go.”