Rural mail carriers deliver the "last mile" of many shipments that begin in a UPS truck.

[imgcontainer] [img:6-Delivery.JPG] [source]Photo by Donna Kallner[/source] Rural mail carriers deliver the “last mile” of many shipments that begin in a UPS truck. [/imgcontainer]

Last month, the House of Representatives advanced yet another bill that would help or hurt the struggling U.S. Postal Service (depending on which side of the aisle you talk to). Outside the Beltway, we’re once again wondering what will happen to an institution that’s widely misunderstood but vital to rural families, farms and businesses.

We count on a raised flag on the mailbox to make sure payments reach our creditors, relatives get their birthday cards, and customers receive the products we ship. We depend on mail delivery for everything from prescription drugs and medical supplies to live chicks and replacement parts for farm machinery. And we count on our mail carriers to keep an eye on the home-bound elderly, let folks know when their goats are out, and bring the local newspaper just one day after it’s published and hand-delivered to folks in town.

We show mail carriers our appreciation with plates of Christmas cookies and tins of fudge, and try to keep spiders and mouse nests out of our boxes. But even if you’ve lived in the country all your life, there may be things about your mail delivery that come as a surprise. Here are a few of them.

#1 – Who thinks the carrier gets federal benefits?
Your rural mail carrier may, in fact, be employed by a private contractor rather than the Postal Service. Even so, background checks, fingerprinting and drug screenings are required. And whoever delivers your mail should be wearing an official ID badge that identifies whether they work for the Post Office or a contractor.

Some people essentially buy themselves a job with a postal delivery contract. But many employ others to do deliveries. Contractors are subject to some federal rules and guidelines about what they pay their employees. But chances are, the person delivering your mail does not get health insurance or retirement benefits from their employer.

#2 – But isn’t retirement benefits the problem?
Many people have heard that the retirement fund is to blame for the closing of so many small post offices and the recurring threat to end Saturday delivery. Actually, it’s the mandated pre-funding of retirement benefits.

In his July 17, 2013 testimony before the House Subcommittee on Oversight and Government Reform, Cliff Guffey, president of the American Postal Works Union, said, “As we have pointed out in testimony here and elsewhere, no other enterprise, either public or private, is required to pre-fund 100% of its retiree health benefits liability. Without this burden that was imposed on the Postal Service and postal customers beginning in 2006, the Postal Service would today be in reasonably sound condition.”

According to the web site,, “These payments account for nearly 80 percent of the daily losses and 80 percent of the cumulative deficit ($32 billion out of $40 billion). The payments are totally unnecessary, and they are artificially inflating the seriousness of the situation.” (

#3 – Will there be a tax hike to pay for all this?
According to one survey, 77% of respondents believe (incorrectly) the Postal Service is funded either partially or fully through tax dollars. Not so. The Postal Service is an independent establishment of the executive branch of our government. No tax dollars are used to fund operations: It’s funded solely by revenues generated through products and services.

In other words, it’s set up to run like a business. One the other hand, federal law requires that competitive products like Express Mail and Priority Mail cover their own “attributable costs” and an appropriate share of the Postal Service’s institutional costs. So unlike other businesses, the Post Office can’t sell some products or services at a loss to attract new customers, penetrate new markets, or match a competitor’s prices.

And while you might assume federal agencies are honor-bound to use the Post Office, that’s not so, either. Agencies like the VA and the Ag Department require the use of Postal Service competitors. They may have good reasons for doing so. Nevertheless, that hurts. In 2012, federal agencies spent $336.9 million on shipping. The Postal Service’s share of that market was just $4.8 million.

[imgcontainer right] [img:1-Sorting.JPG] [source]Photo by Donna Kallner[/source] Carriers sort the mail into a case arranged to match their route of travel, flagging addresses where they will deliver packages. [/imgcontainer]

#4- People say those other carriers are more reliable.
If that were the case, why would those other carriers contract with the Postal Service to deliver packages to you? For example, UPS offers “an efficient, cost-effective method for sending qualified mail to addresses throughout the United States. We will pick up your mail, sort, post, manifest, and expedite it, with last-mile delivery by the post office, passing along reduced rates to you.”

So a shipper sends the package in a brown truck and eventually it makes its way to your local post office, where a carrier loads it in the mail car and brings it to you. The UPS truck may drive right past your door on the way to the post office and not be allowed to stop to deliver that package — because their for-profit business model deems the Postal Service the most cost-effective choice for that last mile.

Since I’m at the shag end of that “last mile,” I have most small packages mailed to me rather than shipped with another carrier. Last year, though, when I ordered sewing needles in a size not carried by my local quilt shop, there were no shipping options at the online check-out. So my order was shipped UPS. Oh, I was able to track the shipment — as it sat for a week at a UPS distribution center, until it was delivered to the Post Office and the driver brought it to my house the next day.

#5 – When the driver has a package, why do they honk?
When a package won’t fit in the box, the driver may try to deliver to the house instead of leaving a slip that tells you to pick it up at the Post Office. Some drivers honk to find out if there are dogs around before they get out of the car.

#6 – Should I go to the car? Why can’t they bring the mail to my door?
In a quirk of the Postal Service that must predate motorized vehicles, getting out of the car is called “dismounting”. According to Handbook SP-1 for Highway Contract Routes, “Normally, mail is designed to be delivered to boxes without dismounting.” In my area, if the snowplow takes out your mailbox (again), your carrier will probably pull in and deliver your mail for a few days to give you a chance to fix it (as long as your driveway is plowed). Carriers don’t have to get out of the car where it’s deemed unsafe (often because of dogs). But carriers “will dismount when necessary” to transact business involving delivery of Registered Mail, Certified Mail, Insured Mail, COD, Standard Post, Priority Mail Express, and other special services. Depending on who they work for, for other deliveries a driver may or may not have much choice about whether to dismount.

#7 – Those drivers always seem to be in such a hurry.
That may be partially explained by the time constraints applied to the route. The amount of time a route is supposed to take is influenced by the number of pieces handled during an annual count and other factors like distance traveled and the number of boxes on a route. The driver’s wages may be based on that time. If the route goes faster some days, great. If it takes longer other days, it’s all supposed to even out.

For whatever reason when it does go longer (snow, road construction, mechanical problems), one thing doesn’t change: All of the outgoing first class mail a driver picks up on the route must be back at the Post Office before the truck arrives to pick it up and move it to a sorting facility. So while the driver might love to bring it to your door, pet the dog and wish you a Merry Christmas, they may be too pressed for time to do anything but honk and hope you come out while they shift bundles and check the sort for their next stops.

#8 – But they take the mail to my neighbor’s door all the time.
Your home-bound elderly and disabled neighbors can request “hardship delivery” to the door. Many rural carriers also keep an eye out for signs of unusual activity (or lack of activity) that might indicate a problem, like accumulating mail or curtains drawn when they’re normally open. And they may call a family member or the local department on aging, or contact the sheriff’s department for a welfare check.

#9 – Do they know that much about every house?
Probably not. But they know an awful lot — probably enough to keep a TV reality show called “Change of Address” on the air for years. But don’t expect to see that: These people know how to keep things to themselves. And even when they know who moved in with who over the weekend, they can’t deliver mail to a new address without an official forwarding order.

[imgcontainer left] [img:5-Frequent+Stops.JPG] [source]Photo by Donna Kallner[/source] Rural mail carriers make frequent stops, and have frequent changes of tires and brake pads. [/imgcontainer]

#10 – So what don’t they know?
For one thing, they don’t know what’s in the packages customers leave in their boxes for pickup. At the counter in the Post Office, you would be asked if the package contains anything liquid, perishable or potentially hazardous. But a flag up on your mailbox doesn’t give the driver that information.

So for the safety of themselves and everyone else (remember anthrax?), carriers are bound by certain guidelines. One is that they may not be allowed to pick up a package over 13 ounces, even if it bears the proper postage. And when they do pick up mail weighing more than 13 ounces, the carrier must isolate that package and hand it off to a counter employee upon return to the Post Office before it enters the general mail stream. That’s assuming the package is accompanied by sufficient funds to cover postage and the return address matches the address at the pickup point and the customer or business is known to reside or operate from that address.

#11 – Are there really that many packages mailed from an area like this?
The small business mailing and shipping market continues to grow, and already the 23 million small businesses in the U.S. generate more than $9 billion in annual revenue for the Postal Service. You might be surprised at what your neighbors are shipping.

For example, 99% of my husband’s hand-crafted landing nets, which he wholesales to fly fishing shops around the country, are shipped by mail. Because of the bulk of his packages, he generally drives them in to the Post Office instead of using carrier pick-up.

Most of the smaller packages I ship, though, go right in the mailbox. I have a “storefront” on Etsy, an online marketplace for handmade goods. The site makes it easy to buy postage and make a shipping label.

“Peer to peer commerce” like this is a large and growing segment of retail e-commerce. It posted overall estimated revenues of $200 billion in 2011 and is expected to grow more than 60% through 2016. Craigslist and eBay are among the top 10 most visited websites in the United States. So you might find that your neighbors are mailing everything from soap to nuts to vintage outboard motor parts. And many of them are concerned about what would happen to package mailing costs if UPS and FedEx, who don’t really want to cover the last mile, were our only choices.

[imgcontainer right] [img:7-Flag+up.JPG] [source]Photo by Donna Kallner[/source] First class mail volume may be down, but eBay and other peer-to-peer commerce sites mean a growing volume of package shipments that rural mail carriers pick up. [/imgcontainer]

#12 – What else have I missed?
You may not know that customers are responsible for keeping approaches to mailboxes clear of obstructions like mud, ice and snow. Even with the studded tires mail cars are allowed to use in winter, getting close to the box without getting stuck is not as easy as it sounds. Particularly when you’re driving from the shotgun seat with one hand on the wheel and one foot stretched toward the pedals.

You may not know that your mail carrier goes through a couple sets of tires each year in addition to those winter studs. Their stop-and-start driving is hard on brakes, too. But I’ve never heard of a mail carrier wearing out the turn signal — probably because it’s hard to reach from the right-hand seat.

You may not know how that awkward posture contributes to back and shoulder problems among mail carriers. And we won’t talk about how difficult it is to arrange trays of mail and body parts so everything reaches and is reachable with the seat belt buckled.

You may not know that before they even get in the mail car, your driver has to sort the mail according to the order they drive the route, flag where packages will be delivered, bundle the mail and load it into the vehicle. Sometimes it’s a trick to make all the large packages fit.

You may not know how grateful a driver is for a public restroom at a convenient location along their route.

And you may not know how much your mail carrier hates political mailers sent by candidates in both parties. The Postal Service generated $508 million of political mail revenue during the 2012 general election — an increase of 123% over the 2008 general election, and a 50 % increase over the 2010 general election. But even if it’s good revenue, those slippery, odd-sized pieces are a nightmare to sort, bundle and deliver.

You may expect mail delivery to be provided as a public service, then, like most of us, complain as rates go up to keep pace with rising costs. You may expect the Postal Service to run like a lean business, then be frustrated with rules that keep it from doing so. And it’s even harder with the added burden of pre-funding of retirement benefits. You may suspect, as many people do, that this is part of a greater effort to privatize public institutions. And it’s hard to deny that special interests seem to benefit.

After all, the political candidates who fill your mailbox at election time pay a lower rate per piece than you do to mail your tax return.

Donna Kallner’s husband, Bill, delivers mail as a part-time relief driver on a Highway Contract Route — a route populated by the best cookie bakers in rural northern Wisconsin.

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