The High Price of 'Making the Numbers' at the USPS

The "going postal" era may be over, but current postal workers say the working conditions haven't changed.
Mail workers sorting mail
Irfan Khan via Getty Images

This article was sent on Tuesday to subscribers of The Mail, Motherboard’s pop-up newsletter about the USPS, election security, and democracy. It is the second in a multi-part series about working conditions at the USPS. Subscribe to get the next edition before it is published here, as well as exclusive articles and the paid zine.

This is Part II of a multi-part series looking at working conditions at the post office. If you missed Part I, click here.


For a brief period, it looked like the post office would finally be changing. On Valentine's Day in 1992, eight union leaders and USPS management signed the Joint Statement on Violence and Behavior in the Workplace (JSOV). Spurred by the Royal Oak shooting we covered last week, the one-page document was much more than the "thoughts and prayers" style platitudes we have since become accustomed to after a mass shooting. Instead, the JSOV declared that "grief and sympathy are not enough. Neither are ritualistic expressions of grave concern or the initiation of investigations, studies, or research projects." 

The statement went on: "This is a time for a candid appraisal of our flaws and not a time for scapegoating, fingerpointing, or procrastination." It affirmed that "every employee at every level of the Postal Service should be treated at all times with dignity, respect, and fairness…'Making the numbers' is not an excuse for the abuse of anyone."

But among the missing signatories was the American Postal Workers Union, one of the biggest and most influential unions representing postal workers. 

Years later, APWU Eastern Region Coordinator Mike Gallagher wrote a position paper to stewards about the continuous problem of workplace violence at the post office. He explained that his union chose not to sign because "quite frankly, we knew that the USPS would apply the principles of the Joint Statement against bargaining unit employees and not against managers." The APWU's position was this statement wouldn't change much, because the causes of workplace violence at the post office were fundamental to how it operated. Even a blanket zero-tolerance policy wouldn't change that.


Over the last few months, I have been interviewing postal workers about what it is like to work for the post office. They express a range of sentiments, from pride to gratitude to frustration and exhaustion. As I have said before, the post office is an impossibly vast and diverse organization that defies simplicity. 

The most common sentiment I hear is postal workers are proud to work for the post office because it is inherently meaningful work. But they also wish it was a more humane place to work, that problems actually got fixed instead of ignored or passed along. Most of all, they wish the USPS was a place where being a good boss or being a good worker actually mattered. There is a maxim at the post office that doing your work well only gets you more work. It was a maxim 30 years ago, and it's still a maxim today. 

I found the most revealing part of this reporting process came when I asked a few of the postal workers I interviewed what they thought of a 1994 Government Accountability Office study, its results succinctly summarized by the title: "U.S. Postal Service: Labor-Management Problems Persist on the Workroom Floor."

The seven postal workers from around the country who volunteered to read the study unanimously agreed the basic characterization of the postal service from 1994 is still accurate. It is an authoritarian, top-down organization in which policy is set by higher-ups who have often never done the work of sorting and delivering mail. The people actually doing the work—or even the people managing the people doing the work—have little to no say in how the work is done. There is a widespread perception that supervisors are not selected based on their management skills. As a result of the basic metrics and incentives upper management creates for both supervisors and workers, an "us vs. them" mentality between labor and management dominates daily routines.


To the question of "have things gotten better since the 'going postal' era?" I received a resounding "no."

"I cannot even begin to tell you how incredulous I was reading this," a 27-year-old mail handler at a processing and distribution facility in Oklahoma wrote in an email. "To know that my same daily complaints and laments were a problem back nearly as far as when I was born—and that they haven’t been resolved in the slightest!!—is so disheartening to me."

Another processing and distribution facility worker from the Pacific Northwest echoed similar sentiments. "That was 10 years before I started, and I have to say overall, No. It has not changed much."

Today's edition of The Mail is going to be about why so little has changed even after the rash of shootings that resulted in dozens of dead and wounded and permanently tarnished the post office's reputation. But it's important to acknowledge this is not just about the post office. Violence—both verbal and physical—in the American workplace was not a new phenomenon when Patrick Sherrill killed 14 coworkers in Edmond, Oklahoma in 1986. The U.S. workplace too often treats workers as little more than extensions of the machines they operate, measuring success and failure by "hitting the numbers," callous to what that sort of treatment does to human minds and bodies. We often think of the post office as a quintessential American institution. Unfortunately, when it comes to how it treats its workers, it is.


In 1994, two different letter carriers filed grievances against supervisors who were allegedly harassing them. The cases were consolidated into one national-level arbitration hearing in 1996. The national-level arbitration was not about the specific harassment allegations, but whether the JSOV, by then four years old, was an enforceable agreement. In other words, could a carrier file a grievance against an abusive manager for violating the JSOV and have that supervisor disciplined, transferred, or even fired? Or was the JSOV just another empty promise from management?

The JSOV itself appears to be quite clear on this question. "Let there be no mistake," the statement concluded, "that we mean what we say and we will enforce our commitment to a workplace where dignity, respect, and fairness are basic human rights, and where those who do not respect those rights are not tolerated."

But by 1996, USPS management didn't see it that way. They argued the JSOV was merely a "pledge" and did not override its right to manage the workforce as they see fit. They said the JSOV was nothing more than an effort to "send a message to stop the violence."

Just as the APWU predicted, management was using the JSOV to punish rank-and-file employees for offenses like cursing at managers while simultaneously arguing the JSOV was nothing more than a toothless document when wielded against abusive supervisors.


The arbitrator sided with labor. "The Joint Statement marked a departure from the past and pointed the way to organizational change," the arbitrator found. "This was a document that evidenced an intent to take action rather than a mere statement of opinions and predictions." 

It's difficult to objectively evaluate the JSOV's effectiveness in curbing workplace violence at the post office. But the broad consensus among postal workers and union stewards I've spoken to is the JSOV is better than nothing but hasn't done much in practice. 

On the one hand, there is some evidence that working conditions at the USPS have gotten better. In 2000, there were 10,553 Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) complaints filed against the USPS by employees out of a workforce of 786,516, or a rate of 1.34 percent. By 2018, the latest year for which these statistics were available, there were just 4,081 complaints out of 633,641 workers, or a rate of .64 percent, less than half what it was in 2000. But factors besides working conditions at the USPS—such as the perceived worthiness of filing complaints with the EEOC—can also impact those rates. 

Likewise, grievances that went to arbitration show some tentative signs of progress. Since 1996, when the JSOV became contractually enforceable, there have been 1,195 grievances involving the National Association of Letter Carriers with a JSOV-related complaint, or about 50 per year on average, according to a copy of the grievance database reviewed by Motherboard. Of those, 611 of the complaints were denied by an arbitrator, leaving 584 cases ruled at least in part a violation of the JSOV.


But, again, this data is not capturing the whole picture. These numbers are not the total JSOV-related grievances, just those that reached arbitration for this one union. And although the years with more grievances came prior to 2000—the most was 145 rulings in JSOV cases in 1997—this is probably because workers had this new avenue to file grievances they didn't previously have, so it captures events dating back several years and conflicts that have been stewing for a while. Rulings per year gradually declined until 2008 with a low 14, before rising again to about 35 per year in recent years.

JSOV Arbitration Cases Involving NALC

Source: NALC arbitration database obtained by Motherboard

Moreover, some of the rulings detail that postal management continues to look the other way on problem supervisors, a key issue highlighted by the Congressional investigation into the Royal Oak shooting. 

For example, in 2008, an arbitrator found a supervisor in Oakland, CA had "a history of cease and desist orders…at stations throughout the Bay-View Postal District." Management was aware of these previous violations of the JSOV and the history of worker complaints against this one supervisor, but management "failed to take appropriate action." The arbitrator said the supervisor's actions of calling his employees "muthafuckers" and "bitches" was "exactly the type of work place behavior that the JSOV was intended to prevent." The arbitrator ruled the supervisor could no longer be anyone's boss, but only in the Pacific Area region. 


Sometimes, the arbitrators themselves do little more than shuffle off problem supervisors to other locations. In 2009, a supervisor in Gaithersburg, MD repeatedly threatened and harassed workers, which the arbitrator found to be "abusive behavior which holds open the potential for violence." Nevertheless, the arbitrator's ruling was to reassign the supervisor to another nearby post office and receive sensitivity training. 

Also in 2009, a union steward and postal supervisor in Stockton, CA got into a physical altercation when, after an increasingly escalating shouting match, the steward accused the manager of sleeping with the postmaster in order to get her job. The manager then slapped the steward, who restrained the supervisor and left. Despite the police being called and a statement taken, the supervisor received only a written warning while the steward was suspended for 21 days without pay. The arbitrator discovered this was not the first time local management had looked the other way on complaints of this particular supervisor violating the JSOV.

And these are just a few of the examples that have been documented. More often, postal workers and union officials say, violence and harassment in the workplace goes unreported as an accepted part of the job. In 2018, NALC Branch 343's newsletter succinctly summarized just how little has changed since the "Going Postal" era:


It has been my experience that seasoned carriers often times will ignore or shrug off this type of behavior because they have been exposed to it for such a long time. This speaks volumes. Many of these carriers have seen worse and nothing happened. 

Why is the post office such an enduring hotbed of workplace conflict? This is a question I've asked postal workers around the country over the past few months. And the most surprising element of reporting this story, at least to me, is there is absolutely no mystery about it. Everyone knows exactly why the post office is rife with workplace conflict. It's even right there in the JSOV: "making the numbers."

Until recently, Josh Sponsler was a letter carrier in Ohio. He decided to quit the post office despite being a "career" employee with solid pay, good benefits, and a decent pension waiting for him at the end of the road. But he quit because the mounting stress and tension in the workplace took a toll on his mental health. When I asked what it was about the workplace that made it so stressful, Sponsler brought up "the 96."

The 96, officially known as Form 3996, is the form carriers have to fill out if they expect they will have to work overtime to deliver the mail that day. In the morning, when carriers show up for work, they will look over the various types of mail they have to deliver: the pre-sorted mail, the magazines and other "flats," and the packages. If they think work that day will take longer than eight hours and therefore trigger overtime, they reach for the 96. 


But supervisors also have their own opinion about how many hours each route should take. The machines that pre-sort the mail automatically generate statistics about how much mail is going to each route. Those stats are then sent to supervisors each morning. Then, supervisors literally measure each route's unsorted mail with a yardstick. After plugging that number into the same software, the computer generates a final estimate for how long the mail should take to deliver.

Often, Sponsler says, the carrier's estimate will be very different from the computer's. For one, neither the computer programs nor measuring mail by the yard captures the most important factors about how long it takes to deliver mail. For example, what's the weather like? Are there mailers going to every business along the route? Every residential address? Is there road construction along the route?

And the computer's estimate is based on the regular inspection every route gets, where a postal supervisor will literally time with a stopwatch every move the carrier makes to determine how long that route "should" take. This estimate then becomes the baseline for that carrier's route estimates until the next inspection is done. But, for various reasons, that inspection may not be representative of the route year-round.

These two estimates for how long the day's mail will take to deliver is, as Sponsler put it, "the first thing that would cause tension" every day.


The tension is heightened because these estimates, multiplied by the thousands upon thousands of mail routes around the country are, in many ways, the main metric for how the modern post office functions. Supervisors are not given budgets in terms of dollars but in terms of work-hours. The more hours carriers say they'll need to finish their routes, the harder it gets for supervisors to meet their work-hour budgets, which will get them in trouble with their bosses.

The same goes for supervisors overseeing workers who don't deliver mail, such as mail handlers and other workers in processing facilities. In fact, for them it can be even worse, because they never leave the facility and are therefore constantly watched by their bosses. Throughout the JSOV grievances reviewed by Motherboard, workers report supervisors timing their bathroom breaks with stopwatches, looming over them so the workers can "feel their presence" while they work, or filing official warnings if they're too slow on a machine by a matter of seconds.  

When carriers, union stewards, and post office managers talk about "making the numbers," they're talking about these numbers, the work-hour budgets. And they're also talking about the increasingly unreasonable requirements postal management puts on supervisors and postal workers alike, bringing mail to more and more delivery points every year with fewer and fewer workers, relying more and more on overtime that management consistently wants to slash. Talking to postal workers, an analogy that often comes up is that working for the post office feels like working in a pressure cooker. Everyone is being squeezed.


Reaching for the 96 has become an increasingly common occurrence. In August, the USPS Inspector General reported on the agency's soaring overtime costs which it largely attributed to "staffing challenges." Because the post office has consistently cut the number of people it employs even as it delivers to more locations, it relies on overtime to deliver all the mail every day. But, in many ways, keeping employees from filing their 96's is the most important thing a supervisor does from USPS management's perspective, because it saves the post office money. 

USPS Overtime costs

Source: USPS OIG

There are, of course, good ways and bad ways for managers to handle this dynamic. Most postal workers I've spoken to said they've had at least one good boss who was reasonable and treated workers with respect. But, they are the exception, not the rule, because doing so requires actively ignoring or competing with the incentives put forward by their bosses. 

For the not so great bosses, they have every incentive to bully workers that take longer to do the job, have routes with the greatest discrepancy between the computerized stats and the carrier's own work pace, or, as is all too often the case, just pick on someone they don't like for whatever reason. And they often do it under the guise of achieving operational efficiency, of hitting the numbers.

Day after day, week after week, month after month, this conflict by design can easily devolve into being about anything other than delivering mail. Mail carriers get frustrated and feel like they're being gaslit into doing a job that cannot be done. They get frustrated being told to do a job in a way they think will be slower while also being told to work faster. Their bosses think they're a liar for saying the work can't be done in eight hours. Supervisors tag carriers who they perceive as constantly asking for unjustified overtime as problem workers who need discipline. 


This dynamic was represented in an extreme but not anomalous way in the Gaithersburg case. The supervisor testified to the arbitrator on the record that he "thinks that Carriers that apply for overtime are 'thieves.'" This view, he added, was the reason he felt empowered to harass carriers who said they would need overtime to finish their rounds. It was also backed up by his postmaster, who expressed similar sentiments.

"You just know there's a very good chance that, by filling this sheet out, you're getting into an argument about time," Sponsler said. And sometimes those arguments get out of hand.

If things haven't gotten any better at the post office, it's fair to wonder: why don't we hear about "going postal" anymore? 

I put this question to Northeastern University Professor James Alan Fox, who has studied mass shootings and workplace violence since the early 1980s. He said shooting trends are more like a "general contagion," in that once they get publicized, a small group of people identify with the shooters and replicate their actions. For example, once the Edmond shooting was covered by the media in 1986, other postal workers started to think that might be a way for them to address their grievances, too. In a situation where these shooters likely saw no way out of their problems, they now had one.


But these trends pass just like any other. "There are fads in crime as there are in other aspects of life," Fox said. "Back in the 80s, the way that postal workers expressed their anger and grievance was with a gun…but that is not part of the culture now."

There is, however, a cohort of postal workers who report regularly higher job satisfaction than everyone else. They're called rural mail carriers. They do the same job as the so-called "city" carriers, even many times out of the same offices with the same supervisors, but for complex historical reasons, they fall under different salary structures. Whereas city carriers are hourly employees that get overtime for working more than eight hours in a day, rural carriers are given an annual salary to deliver the mail however long it takes. As a 1994 Government Accountability Office report put it:

"Rural carriers do not have to negotiate daily with supervisors regarding the time it will take to complete mail sorting or delivery, and their performance is not closely supervised. Rural carriers generally control their own workdays as long as all the mail is delivered on time each day."

I asked Sponsler if he thought putting everyone under the rural carrier structure would solve the workplace issue. He said he had never thought about it before, but he doubted it could ever happen because the entire organization, workers and management alike, have become too addicted to overtime. Many of the workers like the extra money and management won't hire enough people to avoid it. 

Instead, he proposed different solutions, ones I had heard many times before. Abandon the autocratic management structure. Get rid of the computer metrics, or at least drastically curtail how they're used. Empower supervisors to run their post office the best way they see fit, not just follow orders from on high that apply to all the post offices in the area. They're big ideas, but not impossible ones. 

Sponsler ended our interview by saying he didn't really want to quit the post office, but he had to. He liked most of the people he worked with. The carriers really do care about delivering the mail in that cheesy way you always hoped was true but never wanted to ask. It really is true, he said. 

"Even with my experience, it can be a very good place to work," he assured me. But it's a far cry from making sure that experience applies to more than just a select few lucky ones with a good supervisor. "The service needs to work on a lot of stuff to get there."