USPS puts workers in danger

December 3, 2013

Postal worker Melissa Rakestraw reports on the dangers that letter carriers face when they are forced by management to deliver after dark.

TYSON JEROME BARNETTE, a 26-year-old letter carrier, was shot and killed at 7:20 p.m. on November 23, while delivering mail in Prince George's County, Md. Barnette was a four-year postal employee and one of the thousands of hourly part-time workers hired to replace a limited percentage of retiring full-time carriers in a rapidly aging workforce.

The postal service and local law enforcement are offering a $125,000 reward for information leading to the arrest of his killer. At this time, they have offered no indication as to a possible perpetrator.

It may seem unusual to hear of a carrier working that late, but late deliveries have become an all-too-common routine for postal workers. Extreme measures to slash labor costs and downgrade the postal distribution network by Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe have resulted in the closure of over 200 mail-processing plants nationwide and drastic reductions in the clerk and carrier crafts.

The plant closures have resulted in increased travel times, with mail taking longer to get to local post offices and pushing back carrier start times from 8 a.m. to 9 a.m. Once the mail arrives at local offices, there are now fewer clerks to sort the mail to routes and fewer carriers to cover existing and vacant routes, resulting in many carriers working shifts of more than 12 hours, and well into the evening hours.

Tyson Jerome Barnette
Tyson Jerome Barnette

"We have carriers working over 12 hours [a day] every week," said Ken Lerch, president of the National Association of Letter Carriers (NALC) Branch 3825 in Rockville, Md. "More than half of the carriers in our branch are in the dark, carrying mail every night. It is much worse in Branch 142 out of D.C."

NALC Branch 142, which used to have 2,800 carriers, is now down to 1,800, and Branch 3825 went from 558 active carriers to 419. Lerch attempted to warn U.S. Postal Service (USPS) Capital District Manager Kelvin Williams many times that working in the dark would lead to disastrous consequences--he feels that Williams now "has blood on his hands!"

When asked for comment on night delivery of mail, Donahoe conceded carriers "are working later, and they're on the street longer." He went on to add, "We have a lot of carriers who have delivered in the dark for years. We like to have them back by 5 o'clock or so, but it's the changing nature of the business."

It seems illogical that a business that now relies heavily on automated processing would actually accept later start times as standard procedure. Donahoe's remarks on delivering in the dark are misleading in that not all that long ago, before automated mail sorting, carriers would begin at 6 a.m., put all of their mail in delivery sequence themselves and finish their assignments by mid-afternoon.

Now that machines put the vast majority of letters and flats in delivery sequence instead of making the job easier for workers, management has created less desirable working conditions.

Carriers working after dark not only are subject to increased risk of random violence, but face unsafe and hazardous walking conditions due to unseen hazards. Customers can have dogs out or mistake carriers for prowlers, not expecting mail to be delivered late in the evening.

It has now become USPS policy to ignore the obvious hazards of late deliveries and expect worker compliance. Many carriers follow the instructions of supervisors who hand them flashlights and order them to deliver mail after dark, fearing that they will lose their jobs if they don't comply.

In fact, many carriers have been fired for refusing to work after dark and then go months without a paycheck while the union files grievances to win back their jobs.

TYSON BARNETTE'S after-dark shooting would seem to be a completely avoidable tragedy if the Postal Service prioritized worker safety. It's also not an isolated event.

On November 18, in Hollywood, Fla., a letter carrier's delivery truck was struck by a stray bullet from a drive-by shooting that occurred after 5:30 p.m. Again on November 18, in Hempstead, N.Y., a letter carrier was robbed by two men while out on his route at 7:10 p.m.

On Monday, November 25, Chicago letter carriers held an after-work flashlight vigil to bring attention to late deliveries and the six times in the last month that carriers have been crime victims while on the job in their city.

NALC Branch 11 President Mack Julion sees district management's decision to move back start times as a key factor. He said:

The Chicago District is not doing enough in terms of trying to keep carriers safe. Their response is to start carriers later making it more likely that they will be out on the streets at night in the dark. That just increases the likelihood that a carrier can get hurt.

When asked to comment on the recent crimes perpetrated against Chicago carriers, Chicago District USPS spokesman Mark Reynolds responded, "We are aware letter carriers would like to start earlier and get off the streets earlier. Unfortunately, we have to balance that against our processing facilities. If we brought them in earlier, they might be waiting for the mail."

Reynolds also claimed that "all of the delivery routes" in Chicago are standardized eight-hour routes, so that even with an 8:30 a.m. start, "We would still have them on their way home by 5 p.m.," Reynolds said.

This stands in stark contrast to Julion's response: "We had a carrier on the streets delivering mail up until 1 a.m. last week." Carriers in Chicago are routinely seen on the streets well into the late evening because not all routes are standard eight-hour routes, and many routes are vacant, without a regular full-time carrier.

The response from the Chicago District symbolizes USPS's utter indifference to carrier safety. Postal work has been determined by the Department of Labor to be the most dangerous of all federal jobs, including law enforcement.

In the highly segregated city of Chicago, one in seven residents lives in poverty, with many holding low-paying jobs that don't afford them a living wage. The most crime-riddled neighborhoods are also home to the biggest proportion of low-wage workers.

As postal workers see their ranks thinned and their jobs become more dangerous, they serve communities that also suffer the devastating consequences of the neoliberal assault on public service jobs and services.

ON JULY 21, 1978, postal workers walked off the job all across the country when their contract expired, protesting mandatory overtime, hazardous working conditions and forced speedups. This wildcat strike was precipitated by the tragic death of Michael McDermott, a 25-year-old mail handler sucked into a conveyor belt and crushed to death.

This action won a better contract for 600,000 postal workers, but also saw 200 workers arbitrarily fired by a vindictive management to send a retaliatory message. These carriers were willing to risk everything in order to call attention to the unacceptable conditions.

The activist group Communities and Postal Workers United called on all postal workers and allies to observe a national day of mourning on December 2 for Tyson Jerome Barnette, a letter carrier killed while delivering in the dark. In their statement, the group says:

We call on postal workers to wear black armbands, observe a moment of silence, and lower flags to half staff on the day after his funeral to call attention to the brutally tragic killing of Tyson Jerome Barnette, a 26-year-old Washington, D.C.-area city carrier assistant, who was murdered while delivering mail in the dark on November 23.

Postal workers and our communities are angered and outraged at this senseless, unnecessary death.

The next delivery day after the attack on Brother Barnette, 100 percent of letter carriers in the D.C. area were again delivering after dark.

We call on USPS management to end delivery after dark, to fully staff carrier and clerk positions to allow early start and end times for letter carriers, to adjust overburdened routes to eight hours, and restore mail processing capacity.

This tragedy was set up by the "consolidation" of mail processing and understaffing in the clerk craft, which has forced carrier start times later in the day...END DELIVERY AFTER DARK! NOT ONE MORE DEATH FROM POSTAL MISMANAGEMENT!"

USPS had an operating profit of over $660 million in fiscal year 2013, while the parcel business has grown exponentially, and other volumes have stabilized. Management must invest resources to continue this growth and expand service and jobs in order to prevent unsafe work conditions and ensure the survival of the service.

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