Staff cuts stay Postal Service's rounds

Your neighborhood postal carriers slog through snow, rain and gloom of night. But can these swift couriers persevere through that most modern of hazards: the corporate restructuring?

With the heaviest mailing season of the year approaching, the U.S. Postal Service is in the throes of a massive reform and downsizing that some workers say is slowing deliveries and raising concerns about the looming holiday rush.


An early-retirement offer that expires Nov. 20 has already drawn thousands more takers than expected. As a result, insiders say, the remaining staff is short-handed and overworked, sometimes leaving piles of mail unsorted.

"I've been working six days a week. I'm tired of it. It kills me," said one postal worker at the Baltimore headquarters who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "Uncle Sam is wearing me out."


Managers, desperate for replacements, have relaxed hiring standards, briefly allowing some criminals and drug users on the payroll. In one case this month, a newly hired woman showed up for orientation at the Baltimore headquarters and realized that one of her fellow new workers was the man who had robbed her several weeks before.

Postal Service officials here and in Washington contend that the problems are temporary and minor. No unqualified people actually handled the mail, they say. And they note that, in many of the areas most affected by the staff reductions, including Baltimore, the on-time delivery record has improved recently.

All this pain of change, they say, is necessary to save the independent agency, which receives no taxpayer dollars and is confronting a $2 billion deficit next year.

To balance the budget, Postmaster General Marvin T. Runyon announced a major overhaul in August: He would slash the number of high-level executives from 42 to 24, cut expenses such as the Postal Service's sponsorship of the Olympics, and offer early retirement in the hopes of reducing the service's 735,000 work force by 5.4 percent.

The Postal Service is cutting its work force because it expects to have machines that will automatically sort and order all the mail by 1995.

"The postmaster general is hoping to completely eliminate the deficit and hold off the next rate increase until 1994" without hurting performance, said a Postal Service spokesman, Marty Roberts.

But Mr. Runyon, known to workers as "Carvin' Marvin," got a rude surprise this month. By Oct. 3, when the first round of early retirement options closed, the Postal Service discovered that 6,000 more workers than expected had decided to retire.

Even worse, the wrong workers had taken the opportunity. Although Mr. Runyon had hoped more highly paid middle managers would leave, most of the retirees were workers who sorted or delivered mail.


That is why local workers say the reforms, while well-meaning, have at least temporarily created chaos behind the clerks' bars.

Phil Yocum, a data technician at the Baltimore headquarters on East Fayette Street, said he's had only one day off in the past 3 1/2 weeks, although the union contract calls for one day off in every seven.

"My paycheck will look very nice. . . . But I've got no life outside of work," the 20-year veteran said. And next month, he'll probably be putting in even more hours, he fears.

Since the departure of about 700 of the Baltimore region's 7,600 postal workers, "the stress level is very high," he said.

A 13-year veteran mail carrier in Baltimore, who asked not to be identified, said delivery to homes and businesses is several hours later than usual because of the shortages.

The staff has been reduced before enough of the sorting machines have been brought in, causing backlogs of mail.


"The bosses know the mail is getting out later, but they aren't worried about it. First-class mail gets delivered. But second and third classes might be left on the floor until the next day," he said.

The problems in Baltimore are not unique, union officials say.

Although the American Postal Workers Union has backed many of the reforms, executive vice president Bill Burrus said the overtime and hiring problems "are happening all over the country."

So far, customer reaction to the reforms has been mixed. Many business customers praise the service they've received over the past several weeks.

Charles Howard, who directs the mailing of about 500 million pieces of mail a year for Harte-Hanks Direct Marketing in Arbutus, said he braced for chaos when the staff cuts were announced.

"We were prepared for the worst, but that has not happened," he said. "When problems arise, they are taken care of better and more quickly." But private individuals note their mail is arriving later in the day and complain about sloppiness.


Jean McCormick of Elkton said she's worried about some changes she's noticed in her mail service. Mail is arriving late in the afternoon instead of around noon, and in the past couple of months, checks she has sent out to cover bills have taken an extra five to 10 days to clear, she said.

Most annoying, she said, is that "at least once or twice a week I get somebody else's mail in my box."

But many workers expect the problems to be short-lived.

Lt. Tom LaFond, who oversees the Baltimore headquarters' security department, said the woman who discovered she would be working next to the man who robbed her was an isolated case.

The man was quickly fired after security officers discovered he had a criminal record.

"We do background checks [including drug tests and police checks] normally before they are hired," explained Lieutenant LaFond.


"But we have hired hundreds in the last three weeks," he said. The security officers have managed to finish their checks before the new workers finished training and started handling mail, although it has occasionally been a close call, he said.

"We've pulled other people out of their orientation meeting," he said.