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Rural Mail Carriers Face Pay Cuts That Could Worsen Service Woes for Vermonters

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Published May 24, 2023 at 10:00 a.m.


MATT MIGNANELLI
  • Matt Mignanelli

The U.S. Postal Service has imposed big pay cuts on some Vermont workers in rural areas, leading to fears that carriers will quit and leave the postal service less able to provide reliable mail delivery.

The pay reductions are the result of a new system the postal service has adopted to calculate the salaries paid to rural mail carriers. Nationwide, two-thirds of those carriers will make less money.

"After two years of not taking any time off of work because of COVID, this is what our reward is?" a rural mail carrier in Windsor County said. The postal worker asked to remain anonymous because he is prohibited from speaking with reporters. He said the formula that took effect on May 6 reduced his salary from $54,000 to $46,000 a year — a 15 percent pay cut. Meanwhile, his route and the time it takes to deliver the mail have not changed at all. 

A rural mail carrier in Orange County echoed his dismay.

"There's no transparency in any of this. We got numbers thrown at us, but none of them add up," she said. Her pay was cut by $10,000, though she has worked for the postal service for nearly 24 years. 

Her first instinct was to quit, she said, but for now, she's decided to see whether the salary reductions remain in place. The workers' union, the National Rural Letter Carriers' Association, has filed a grievance, saying the postal service withheld details on the data that underlie the pay calculations.

"I'm just gonna wait it out and see what happens. I don't want to jump the gun," she said, adding that she considers herself one of the lucky ones. She has coworkers whose salaries were cut and their routes got longer.

The changes in the way rural carriers' salaries are calculated has been the focus of negotiations between the National Rural Letter Carriers' Association and the USPS for years. The postal service insists it is not cutting pay but just making "a change in the way rural routes would be evaluated," according to spokesperson Stephen Doherty.

Unlike city mail carriers, who are hourly employees and are paid overtime, rural carriers are paid a salary based on an annual count of the amount of mail they handle daily and how long it takes to deliver. For years, the total was calculated manually. The new system uses data from the daily count of mail passing through sorting machines in postal facilities and from handheld scanners that carriers are required to take with them on their routes.

But miscommunication and other discrepancies in implementation have led to inaccuracies, which the union and postal service have acknowledged. "We know and the USPS knows that there are errors that need to be corrected," the National Rural Letter Carriers' Association said in an April message to members. "The USPS's position is to implement and correct the errors later."

Many rural mail carriers say they were not correctly trained on how to use the complicated scanner system that ultimately determines how much they earn. Carriers use the scanners to log dozens of data points throughout the day, from when they start work to how long their lunch break lasts. But because the scans are sometimes incomplete, inaccurate or simply done at the wrong time, the data underreport the time it takes to deliver mail on many routes, critics say. At the same time, many mail carriers say Amazon deliveries have made their routes busier than ever.

Of the 81,665 routes reevaluated by the postal service, 66 percent lost hours, resulting in lower pay, according to figures the National Rural Letter Carriers' Association sent to its members. Forty-four percent lost more than three hours a week. Only 14 percent gained more than three hours.

Doherty, the postal service spokesperson, downplayed the effect of the new pay regime. "This is just a different formula for calculating the routes," he said. "Hiring has actually been on the upswing, and I don't anticipate that this will change that."

Yet rural mail carriers across the country are already quitting, or considering quitting. Online postal employee discussion forums are littered with comments from workers who are comparing the severity of their pay cuts and speculating how rural post offices, already spread thin, are going to manage the workload with fewer employees.

One former rural mail carrier in Washington County said a recalculation of his salary with the new formula led him to quit his job in April. The carrier was making $100,000 a year — thanks to working overtime at Christmas — when he learned that his salary would be cut by 25 percent. "It was the last straw for me," he said.

Morriah Signor Adams, the wife of a rural mail carrier in Vermont, said her husband is considering quitting his job after taking a cut of a few thousand dollars. "It's creating a financial struggle," she explained to Seven Days in a Facebook message. "Most of the carriers in this area that are career have not quit due to the cuts, yet. But they may be left with no choice."

The rural carrier in Windsor County agreed. He's considering a return to his old job as a nursing assistant. "I wonder why I ever gave up my [nursing] license to begin with to do this," he said. "It's a real slap in the face."

Lower pay, and its potential effect on service, matters to the people who receive mail, too. In recent years, mail delivery in Vermont has become unreliable at times, especially in rural areas. Front Porch Forum posts by neighbors inquiring about delayed or missing mail have become routine.

According to postal employees who spoke to Seven Days, some Vermont postmasters are driving to other towns to cover mail routes that have been left unstaffed. Mail carriers from other states are being brought in for weeks at a time to cover unfilled positions.

"It got to point where it was almost like: Let's pick which route not to do today," the Washington County carrier said, referring to the staffing shortages felt in his post office.

Doherty, the postal service spokesperson, would not comment directly on the Vermont situation. But he said it's routine to move workers among towns and states when needed. According to Doherty, the service employs 1,315 people in Vermont and currently has just 88 unfilled jobs.

Earlier this month, U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) was among six senators who penned a letter urging the postal service to delay implementing the new pay system until its "serious flaws" were dealt with. 

And on May 17, U.S. Rep. Becca Balint (D-Vt.) questioned Postmaster General Louis DeJoy during a House Oversight and Accountability Committee hearing. Balint asked DeJoy to assure the public that his plan for the postal service would not result in service reductions for rural Americans.

"I didn't leave with the assurances that I wanted," Balint told Seven Days. "One of the things that I hear from Vermonters is, 'If my post office dies, it's just another nail in the coffin for my town' ... This is a vital service for rural America, and we should be willing to pay for that vital service." 

The original print version of this article was headlined "Problems at the Post Office | Rural mail carriers face pay cuts that could worsen service woes for Vermonters"

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