You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.

Death by a Thousand Cuts for One of America’s Last Great Institutions

Mail carriers tell the story of how the destruction of the U.S. Postal Service would mean the end of a connected country.

VALERIE MACON/AFP/Getty Images

The carriers I know call it marriage mail. The average person likely thinks of it as junk mail—the coupon booklets from local businesses dumped immediately in the trash, save for maybe the extreme couponers or the elderly. No one I’ve asked about it seems sure of how it got the name, but the most logical explanation was that it used to come with two parts: the coupon booklet and a card with the home address, joined in postal matrimony.

Once a week or so, bundles of the stuff are stacked outside of letter carriers’ sorting areas, one piece of marriage mail for every address on the route—literal tons delivered across the country, all almost certainly to be thrown away.

My father was a letter carrier for over a decade and got me summer jobs carrying mail when I was in my early twenties. He warned me that marriage mail day was the worst day of the week but also the most lucrative. Carriers that aren’t technically cleared to receive overtime (not on the set “list” of carriers approved for extra duty and pay, a way of controlling salary overhead) get an extra half hour on the clock with minimal reprimand, all because even supervisors understand marriage mail day means extra mail volume, and extra mail volume means extra work. “You get paid by the hour” was the mantra when someone complained about workload, normally met with a begrudging nod. The Sisyphean job of the mail carrier—load the truck, deliver the mail, come back tomorrow to another loaded truck—is only somewhat offset by the knowledge that each full truck means more hours, more wages, another month of putting food on the table.

Since the pandemic and the renewed fight to kill the post office that began shortly thereafter, every day has been marriage mail day. In a suburb in southeastern Pennsylvania, carriers I spoke with said that the entire floor of carriers is working overtime, whereas usually no more than 30 percent previously did so.

The workers say the office is also criminally understaffed. At the height of the pandemic, carriers I spoke with told me people would take leave to avoid exposure to the virus or out of precaution because a spouse or loved one had contracted the illness. A handful of cases among carriers themselves in April also caused a wave of panic and increased reticence to continue putting themselves at risk, much like what happened in post offices across the country, causing significant increases in labor for those that could remain. Despite things returning closer to normal, the workload has remained pretty consistent, and one carrier speculated that it was likely owed to a temporary hiring freeze for new city carrier assistants (the probationary, entry-level carrier designation) during the first few months of social isolation when trainings were halted. “Back in April, we had like twenty open routes,” said another carrier. “Now it’s still like sixteen. We used to lose our minds if there were six or seven open routes.”

Annette Clay gets a hug from a postal worker during a ceremony honoring her daughter Unique Clay. Unique, a 31-year-old letter carrier, died from complications from Covid-19 on May 5, a week after giving birth to her third child.
Scott Olson/Getty Images

The result is increased pressure and the lingering doubt that begins to creep in when one wonders about whether they’re witnessing signs of the end times of the career they were promised. Even with an entire staff of letter carriers working overtime, mail is backing up. Multiple carriers I spoke with said that it feels like the Christmas season constantly, with packages piling up now that more people are shopping from home, scared to spend extended time in brick-and-mortar stores. The workload itself is overwhelming, and when coupled with the ongoing public fight over the future existence of the United States Postal Service, or USPS, the situation begins to feel untenable for the physical and mental well-being of letter carriers and other postal workers experiencing similar circumstances across the country.

“It’d be nice if I could go back to not only hearing about my job when it’s about to get taken out from under me,” said one suburban letter carrier. At the risk of oversimplifying a complex issue, that’s what is at stake. Besides its consistent reliability and storied history, the USPS is one of the last institutions that provide a gateway to a comfortable living for those with limited options. There are no degree or diploma requirements. Nearly 100,000 employees are veterans, and the ones I knew were comfortable in the work because it resembled the structure and management hierarchies they experienced in the military.

While the postal service may survive privatization in name, hundreds of thousands will lose the reliability of knowing that they have a career—an actual pathway to something like middle-class comfort—instead of just another temporary job that can be taken from under them at the whims of the profiteers. Its destruction would mean the end of a connected country—those gifts and packages to families in the rural corners of America, letters to incarcerated loved ones, and money orders for those without easy access to a bank. We’re going to kill one of the last good public institutions so that private enterprise can deliver a few more packages for less money while the rest of the country suffers, losing a massive piece of our essential sense of community.


“I know for a fact there are plenty of branches here in Philadelphia that have it worse than us,” said a carrier of over 20 years. “We’re at least getting all the mail out. For now, at least, until this new guy’s impossible shit gets started.”

The “new guy” is Postmaster General Louis DeJoy, a significant Republican fundraiser and Trump donor who took office in June of this year. Adding to the skepticism is the fact that President Trump has already gone on the record as wanting to privatize the postal service in 2018. Among carriers spoken to for this story, the consensus was that it’s not a matter of if DeJoy’s endgame is forcing privatization but when.

“This talk of taking away hours or privatizing has been going on for a long time, but this one feels a little bit different,” Larry King, a retired carrier of more than 30 years in Uniontown, Pennsylvania, told me. King served as president and vice president of the National Association of Letter Carriers, or NALC, local branch 520 and currently serves as treasurer. Threats to remove Saturday delivery, move to a five-day delivery schedule, and other cost-cutting measures have been floated since the 1980s. “This time you’ve got a postmaster general that doesn’t know anything about the mail,” he said. “First time in twenty years we’ve had someone with no experience in the post office running things. And he’s got $30 to $70 million [invested] in the competition. So, yeah, I think this time it feels a lot more real.”

DeJoy’s vision for the future of the USPS is littered with the types of efficiency buzzwords that make private equity goons salivate but has no practical path toward implementation without destroying the service and reputation that has made it the most highly regarded federal agency in America. Among the most impractical is the complete elimination of overtime pay and a forced, structured workday that is not to exceed eight hours for any given carrier. For post offices like the one in southeastern Pennsylvania, where a handful of employees indicated that all 70-plus carriers are working 10 to 12 hour days just to clear the mail, it’s an impossible vision and one with implications that are forcing carriers to mentally grapple with decades of training. “That overtime pay really helps with $20,000 of daycare every goddamn year,” said one carrier, who pointed out the most damning implication of removing overtime from thousands of carriers across the country. It’s akin to a massive salary cut for countless workers, with little to no warning or preparation.

While overtime pay is, by definition, above and beyond the expected scope of duties and scope of pay, it’s a vital piece of the puzzle for mail carriers. Among the carriers I spoke with and have known, and the many anecdotes relayed from union people from other areas of the country, there’s a consensus on the best way to use the job to climb the socioeconomic ladder: take advantage of your body while you can. For workers who begin their careers early or keep themselves in physical shape as they age, there are more opportunities for hours. The mail has to get delivered, after all, and there’s usually too much for everyone to manage in the eight allotted hours of pay at the standard hourly rate (starting hourly wage for an entry-level carrier with no previous experience is just over $16).

Picking up more hours means more money, and with enough time-and-a-half or double-time pay after eight and ten hours on the street respectively, a carrier can earn a comfortable living—albeit at the expense of their physical comfort. By forcing carriers to lose their overtime pay, that hustle into the upper-middle class disappears. Perhaps worst of all, it will come with ruining the reputation of the service, as dissatisfied customers are inevitable if employees are being ordered to just return with crates of undelivered mail when eight hours is up.

“It’s completely ridiculous,” said another carrier, who said they are currently working an average of 80 to 90 hours every week to keep up with what is already a backlogged postal floor. “It’s just crazy to me that the guy in charge is basically saying so openly like, ‘Yeah, we’re just not going to deliver your fucking mail. Sorry. If we get to it in eight hours, maybe, but otherwise it’s sitting on the floor until tomorrow or the day after.’” The hope appears to be, just like with other companies who squeeze employees with explicit and implicit pressure, that whatever carriers remain after the changes are implemented can be forcefully coerced into doing more work in those 8 hours.

“It’ll be like working at Costco,” one carrier said about a privatized post office. “You can make a living working at Costco. It’s just not as easy, and it’s not what we signed up for.” Implicit in their feelings, though, is that like working at Costco or any other private employer means you’re now at the whims of a profit motive. It doesn’t feel like an overstatement to say there’s always been a bigger purpose to the postal service.

“We’re the only service that covers the entire United States,” King said. “These private companies, UPS or FedEx or whoever, they don’t deliver to rural West Virginia. They send those packages to us, and we deliver them. If they start privatizing us, you’re gonna lose that. I think that’s a very sad thing for so much of the country to lose.” King remains convinced that most of this is a political ploy designed to create distrust ahead of the election in November and some leverage is being exerted in contract negotiations with the NALC. “You slow down the mail, you start getting some people thinking ‘Okay, well my ballot probably isn’t even going to get there, so why bother.’” King doesn’t believe that DeJoy can do enough damage in the next 90 days to set the post office up for permanent failure. But when pressed about what would happen should Trump win a second term in November, his optimism fades. “If that happens, we’re looking at privatization, I think. They’ll finally get their way.”

It’s the undermining of public trust that hurts the most, according to the carriers spoken to for this story. There’s pride in the job. DeJoy’s decision to try and ruin that by forcing carriers to leave mail and essentially turn their backs on the duties of the position is what is causing the most internal confusion. “I find a letter in my station that I know is on 3 Route and not my route that day, I’m pausing what I’m doing and I’m taking that letter over to the carrier working 3 Route. And, like, I’ve delivered that route before, so I know the person who is supposed to get that letter. I do that because I want them to get their mail. And this guy is basically saying ‘No, fuck that, don’t do that; throw it on the floor.’ That’s not how I’ve spent twenty years of my life. That doesn’t sit right with me.”