What's it like being a USPS mail carrier?
September 8, 2016 6:37 AM   Subscribe

I'm interested in applying to work for the US Postal Service as a mail carrier. I'd like to hear more about what the job is actually like, from people who've done it or who know someone who has. Does anybody here have any experience to share?

Pretty simple question, I think. I'm looking to hear about experiences working with the USPS as a mail carrier, either rural or urban. I think I'd be a good candidate for the job and I think it might be a good fit for me—I like being outside, I like walking long distances, I like driving and making deliveries. (These are all things that I've done as part of other jobs, and found to be some of my favorite parts of those jobs.) I like the idea of performing a valuable service (even if there's a lot of junk mail involved as well) and of being out in all weather. I like the idea of being able to focus on one thing—making my rounds and delivering the mail—rather than having to multitask all day. I would take pride in being a reliable, dependable person who "neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays [this courier] from the swift completion of [his] appointed rounds."

The benefits package looks good enough that I would OK with the pretty mediocre pay, and I like the idea of being part of a union. I know somebody who I'm fairly certain would write me a strong recommendation.

What I don't know is, what is it actually like? Like, what is the day-to-day grind of being a mail carrier, how does it actually feel? How is it as a career, what is the experience like five, ten, twenty years in? What is awesome about it? What is totally bullshit about it? What don't I know? What questions should I ask myself before deciding if this is right for me? I'm specifically looking for insight from people who have or have had this job, or who know someone who does or did. Thanks very much in advance!
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The to Work & Money (22 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Check out /r/usps. They have lots of insight and info on hiring.
posted by so fucking future at 6:55 AM on September 8, 2016 [3 favorites]

I was a rural carrier in Virginia many (like 30) years ago. I would imagine it's not too much different now. A carrier not only carries the mail, but cases it, too. That means you stand in front of a case that has slots for every address on your route, and you take mail from large trays for your route, and put each piece of mail into the proper slot for its address. One thing that's probably different now is the quantity of mail. I'd guess it's far less, so casing likely doesn't take as long as it used to.

Casing is the part of the job where I got to know my fellow carriers who were all wonderful, crazy people, many of whom became good friends outside of work.

After all the mail was cased, we pulled it down, strapped it into manageable bundles, loaded it in our vehicles, and off we went.

It was hot in the summer, cold in the winter, but all in all, a pretty good gig.
posted by Dolley at 6:59 AM on September 8, 2016 [3 favorites]

I know a carrier working in a MI college town. While he seems to enjoy his job, he has to work really long hours at times and -nearing retirement age- it's getting hard on his body and especially strenuous in the winter. But all in all he seems happy with his occupation.
posted by The Toad at 7:12 AM on September 8, 2016 [2 favorites]

A friend of mine went to work as a mail carrier a year ago. She was on a rural route that used one of the mail trucks. The job routinely required more hours that it was supposed to. At first, that was her getting the hang of it, for instance of the casing that Dolley mentions. Then it was some holiday-related stuff. People called in sick, and carriers would do that route after they'd finished their own, so that people were doing a route and a half. Sunday delivery is a thing now. She would routinely be called in on her scheduled days off to cover for someone else, and couldn't say no because she was still on probation. She once worked something like 70 days in a row. Sometimes she had to sit around and wait for another carrier to finish and get back to the PO because there weren't enough vehicles available that day, and would end up doing half her route in the dark and getting home very late.

She finally quit when she realized that she kept saying, "Things will settle down once the holidays are over/everyone gets over the flu/the vehicle situation gets fixed." She finally figured out that there was always going to be something making the job harder and longer than it was supposed to be.

In many ways, she loved the job. She enjoyed being physical, getting to know the people on her route, and seeing the inner workings of the post office. But it eventually got to be too much for her.
posted by not that girl at 7:14 AM on September 8, 2016 [4 favorites]

Beware there is a difference between a long term postal carrier and some of the new openings. I was chatting with a long time postman about a card in the mail offering new jobs. The new openings were more of a contract position with really lousy hours and few benefits. Basically it sound like it tough to get on full time.
posted by sammyo at 7:25 AM on September 8, 2016 [4 favorites]

Two of my relatives work in the postal service (different cities). Both complain a ton about the government hierarchy/bureaucracy aspects of it, where their evil bosses organize these little fiefdoms and use them to assign shifts unjustly, or where slackers and incompetents end up hanging around forever without consequences, or where inter-workplace enmities and cliquishness run wild. (This kind of interpersonal toxicity, for what it's worth, ime is a common feature of government workplaces in general, but it seems especially bad in the postal service).

I'd imagine collegiality varies quite a bit from office to office, though, so you'll want to make sure to gather information about your particular locality, as well as about postal work in general.
posted by Bardolph at 8:08 AM on September 8, 2016 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Yeah, definitely not interested in a contract position, I'd be looking for a career track position for sure.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 8:12 AM on September 8, 2016

I imagine it really varies depending on office. The prevailing theme of my mail carrier friend's description of his job is incompetent, antagonistic management, constant shenanigans with hours/compensation, and a couple of truly disgusting coworkers. The actual mail carrying part seems fine except for a few residents on the route who make up complaints about him and get him in trouble. (Outrageously made-up complaints, like "he's hitting my dog" when he's never touched the dog and couldn't even if he wanted to because it's in an outdoor kennel.)

Small town in the mid-Atlantic.
posted by kapers at 8:58 AM on September 8, 2016 [1 favorite]

My dad was a letter carrier who became a supervisor and, eventually, the postmaster of a small town. The job, as I recall it, is pretty much what you'd think. Pros: being outside, away from micromanagement for a lot of your day, good benefits if you're career track, feeling like you're doing something important, pretty impressive philately knowledge. Cons: bureaucracy, long hours, physical exhaustion (more on this in a second), and now, constant political pressure.

The latter is the biggest difference between when I was growing up watching my dad and now. There are a lot of people who want to get rid of the USPS entirely, and barring that, cutting it back significantly. It would be infinitely harder to make a long-term career out of it now than back in the 70s when my dad started. Personally, I'm an optimist, so I think it'll survive, but I don't know how realistic that is.

About the physical stuff: it sounds good in theory, but it gets old really fast. I had a job once where I had to be on my feet 12 hours a day, three days a week, and by the end of that third day, I was dead. I had a four day weekend, and I spent most of it in bed because my legs were so tired. And I was in pretty good shape at the time. Even if you've worked on your feet for long periods before, you should still think twice, because this will be a full-time thing for a long time (like, until you're old and don't feel like spending the vast majority of your life walking anymore).

The bureaucracy thing is real. I've never spent more than ten minutes among a group of postal workers without the conversation turning to some bureaucratic BS. It's something to consider. But on the other hand, that's true of just about anywhere these days. I bitch about bureaucracy with my co-workers (I work in software support); my wife (a therapist) bitches about it with hers; my mom (a paralegal) bitches about it with hers. It's kind of a fact of life at this point. I don't know that the USPS would be any worse than any other job.

If you have a college degree (I vaguely recall that you do, although I might be wrong), you'll have an advantage in upward mobility. If the physical stuff gets to you, you can move inside to be a supervisor. Again, this was my dad's career path. He made an OK life out of it.

The other big advantage is that the USPS is the only institution in literally every single town in the US. If you ever decide to move, there is guaranteed to be a USPS office there. The question is whether there are open positions at that office. (Or whether the USPS will continue to exist, see above, but that's another story.) So you've got a lot of mobility. You're not tied to a particular city or region unless you want to be.

This is a fringe benefit, but little kids really like mailmen, and you'll probably have the opportunity to make a kid's day a few times a week. It's something that, if you like doing things for others, can keep you going when the other stuff gets you down.

Just be aware that, when you have kids of your own, they will be obsessed with rubber bands. There are rubber bands EVERYWHERE in post offices, and if your kids ever come to work with you, they will find every single one, and make rubber band guns to fire them at each other.
posted by kevinbelt at 9:10 AM on September 8, 2016 [4 favorites]

I was just thinking about the USPS and a conversation I had with a client of mine maybe a decade ago.

She was an industrial psychologist and had written a paper and some other stuff about/for the USPS. As we were talking about her work, some things I had never thought about came up. This was the takeaway I remember from our conversation:

• The kind of people who do really well in the carrier position are the kinds of people who have a certain immediate mindfulness about their work. They don't think about what they need to do at work tomorrow, they sort and then deliver what they have when they have it. People who have long-term plans or who see long-term goals don't do as well because...

• With this job, unlike almost any other job, the variety is only in the scope of the daily work, never in the work itself. So you may have more to deliver or less, but day in, day out you sort and deliver. Sort and deliver. People are unhappy in carrier jobs if they can't come to peace with that. Every other job from Burger King to President of the US has a core set of demands with lots of ancillary problem solving around that. This job as I understood it had much less of that. She said that some people don't handle that particular aspect well.

I wish I could remember this woman's name.
posted by Tchad at 10:05 AM on September 8, 2016 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: For the benefit of anyone else reading along, I will say that having looked at the listings for my state the only carrier jobs available are the non-career, part-time CCA/RCA ones, which look like a shitty deal if I ever saw one. There are literally zero full-time, career-track openings for mail carriers in Massachusetts. So while I appreciate all the anecdotes and information and still feel like a job as a mail carrier for the USPS would be a great fit for me, it looks like maybe that job doesn't really exist as an opportunity anymore. It appears that it's all been shifted to part-time, precarious work with less benefits, stability, and opportunity. Kind of depressing to be honest.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 10:29 AM on September 8, 2016

There are literally zero full-time, career-track openings for mail carriers in Massachusetts.

Yeeah. I was mid post about how amazing it was that there even was a posting for a full time carrier because where I live in Massachusetts you have to literally kill and eat your post man to get his job. (little known puritan legal fact)

I've worked (many years ago) and know many others who have worked contract and sub positions, I don't know of anyone who became a full time carrier that way. In states like Mass you may need to know someone.
posted by French Fry at 11:05 AM on September 8, 2016 [3 favorites]

I would add that no other courier or delivery service is really like USPS at all. You'll not find similar benefits or pay or pace of work among any of the private delivery companies.
posted by French Fry at 11:12 AM on September 8, 2016 [1 favorite]

I know a guy who just started as a carrier with the USPS this year. According to him, in most areas, they are only hiring new employees in those contract positions, and then, after about a year, they can be hired to vacated permanent positions. It might be different in smaller areas where they have open permanent positions, but he said there aren't any like that in the whole metro area we're in, anyway. He is working full time, and our area is still hurting for new carriers, so the prospects, assuming nothing changes too much, are pretty good. It's probably worth mentioning that a big reason for that is Amazon deliveries, so if they switched to some other delivery method or something, it could change. But as it is, he says it's a pretty good bet that you could end up in a career position after a year, especially in some of the larger urban areas. Some of them are hurting for new employees, hiring almost anyone off the street, and then moving people up after a year if they're even half reliable.

Here is the other main thing I remember of what he said: RRAs are paid by the delivery rather than by the hour. Some hate it and want to quit because of it, while others can get their routes done by noon and get paid for a full day. CCAs are paid hourly. He's a CCA, and he worries more about getting called in on his days off than he does about not getting enough hours, for what that's worth.

I don't know what exactly his benefits are, although he does get something, and it is a union job so there's that.
posted by ernielundquist at 11:39 AM on September 8, 2016 [1 favorite]

I have a friend who is a postal carrier. He is consistently #1 in our Fitbit standings for most steps taken in a week.
posted by mmascolino at 12:23 PM on September 8, 2016 [3 favorites]

It's old news now, but try Post Office by Charles Bukowski.
posted by Rash at 2:22 PM on September 8, 2016

As an ex-partner of an ex-postal worker (female city carrier in the Southwest for 12 years), I would advise against pursuing employment with the USPS on the basis of a pretty toxic work culture; i.e., there are reasons that people go in and shoot the place up, among them being, as noted above, incompetent management based on the brute force model. Time pressure is massive. Sure, everywhere has bureaucratic BS, but the USPS offers up a strange mix of some of the worst aspects of both labor unions and the military (both of which definitely have good aspects; however, they are not generally manifested in this environment). Not a great place for thinking people in general, and can be pretty nightmarish for women.
posted by littlecatfeet at 7:21 PM on September 8, 2016

My boyfriend is a postal carrier and what he has told me is pretty consistent with what others have said. Most locations only hire CCAs, which management tends to run ragged. Some CCAs do manage to move up to "regular", so it is possible if there are a lot of regular carriers nearing retirement age. The newest regulars will get stuck with the less desirable routes (lots of walking, sometimes in sketchy neighborhoods). It sounds like you want the physically active part of the job, but there are those whose think they can get in and get a driving route right away when it takes 20 years to get enough seniority. Overall though he doesn't recommend getting into the USPS at this point in time. Between the heat/cold and other physical challenges (several of his coworkers slipped and broke bones last winter) as well as the management bullshit, the pay and benefits really aren't worth all the negatives.
posted by weathergal at 8:33 PM on September 8, 2016

Best answer: I've been a city carrier in Portland, Oregon for eleven years. At the time I started the newbies were called "PTFs" which stood for part-time flex, reflecting the fact that we weren't guaranteed full-time work. The reality, though, was the same as it is for the new people now, which is that they work a lot of overtime. You get paid time and a half for that.

Back in the day, only about 50% of PTFs made it through the 90-day probation. I'm not sure what the rate is now under the new system. Maybe it's different in Boston, but most of the CCAs around here are becoming career employees. CCA is career, track, eventually. At least it is in Portland district. It's true that you have to be one of the good ones. Most are.

Maybe my employment history before USPS was sketchier than some people's, but my hiring by the USPS was an unmitigated blessing. Annoyances do exist, as with any job. Some bosses are bad bosses, and some stations develop toxic cultures. If you find yourself at a station (in an urban area) that you don't like, consider the possibility that the station nextdoor is totally different, because my experience is that it probably is. Bid on a route there. Find the right fit. There really is a lot of variety. In fact it is a stated policy of USPS to try to hire people from as many different backgrounds as possible.

Despite what Tchad said about people only doing well in this job who have a sort of "immediate mindfulness," which seems to be a nice way of saying "people who have no larger perspective on their lives and don't really notice or feel the fact that they're doing the same thing over and over," I've made a lot of large improvements in my life over the years I've worked for the Postal Service. I live in a better place. I've been in a better position to be a help to my kids. I met a really nice woman. Sticking it out has been worth it. I get regular raises merely by virtue of seniority, and these days I have a very nice route. A walking route, which I find preferable. (You freeze your ass in the wintertime on mounted routes.) I'm still tired at the end of the day, but a lot less so than I was before I knew how to eat right, how to keep my blood sugar up, before I got allergy testing (I have health insurance!) and before I understood how important it was for me not to drink and smoke. Sobriety may not be everyone's trip, but it is mine. Whatever problems there are with your routine/regimen show up in much starker relief when you walk all day.

I think that the thing I like most about being a mail carrier is that I'm not always jockeying for position (though it would be if I tried to go into management, which is why the relatively small pay increase isn't worth it for me). As long as I do the work, my income is taken care of. At the end of the day, I can work on my life.
posted by O. Bender at 11:27 PM on September 8, 2016 [6 favorites]

Response by poster: This followup is directed mainly at O. Bender, though of course anybody who thinks they have relevant advice is welcome to chime in:

I know that you started under a somewhat different system than today's and you're on the other side of the country from me so I'll take what you have to say with an appropriate grain of salt (and I'm also hearing loud and clear the message that CCA ➡ carreer-track isn't necessarily as realistic here in Massachusetts) but do you mind saying how long you had to "stick it out" as a CCA before you made it to a permanent, full-time position?

I'm currently thinking that I'd be willing to put in a good year as a CCA and then re-evaluate from there. (I don't mean that I'd quit if I didn't get a career spot after a year, just that I'd reassess where I was at and where I felt like I was going with the job.) I'm willing to pay some dues, but I'm not interested in a neverending hazing ritual. I'm feeling like even though the CCA position isn't what I want, some of the positive aspects—which you helped remind me of in your comment, thank you—would make it worth giving it a serious shot nonetheless.

What in your experience is a reasonable amount of time to work as a CCA (or PTF, if you will) before transitioning to full time? Again, I know that there's likely a big difference between the Portland and Boston metro areas, but I think you're the only person in this thread who actively works as a mail carrier themselves, so I'm asking you. (Although, again, anybody with insight into this part of the question is more than welcome to share it.)
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 5:40 AM on September 9, 2016 [1 favorite]

I'm O. Bender's fiancé and we actually first met when he was the mail carrier for my work (although OK Cupid was what put us in touch to date.)

And he failed to mention he gets to pet lots of cats on his route! And that mail carriers have very sexy legs.
posted by vespabelle at 6:41 AM on September 9, 2016 [3 favorites]

Hey Anticipation--Things may not be the same in your area, but CCAs here are becoming regulars in 1-2 years.
posted by O. Bender at 8:04 AM on September 9, 2016 [1 favorite]

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