USPS aims to save with independent carriers
Urban America has long been the exclusive enclave of letter carriers employed by the U.S. Postal Service.
These workers — who pledge not to be slowed by rain, hail, sleet or snow — are instantly recognizable in their distinctive uniforms or vehicles with the steering wheel on the right side.
Looking to cut costs nationwide, the Postal Service will now award contracts to nonpostal employees for deliveries in large new housing tracts, usually located on the fringes of cities.
These independent contractors don't get benefits. They drive their own cars. The only sign that they are associated with the Postal Service may be a badge at their waist or hanging from a lanyard around their neck.
"This is the wave of the future," said Susan Sensano, growth coordinator for the Fresno post office.
First up for Fresno: Copper River Ranch, where Cynthia Majors last week began delivering to 50 addresses on the city's northern fringes.
More contractors will soon follow, postal officials say, for large new subdivisions west of Highway 99 in northwest Fresno, on Peach Avenue near Jensen and Church avenues, around Shields and Temperance avenues on the city's eastern edge, and in the southwest near Church and Elm avenues.
It is the same in Clovis, where there are plans to start contract service in the next few months in new parts of the city — one example: the 1,800-home, 400-acre Harlan Ranch development.
Postal Service officials say the change isn't dramatic.
"We've used contract services as far back as the Pony Express," said USPS spokesman Augustine Ruiz. "This is really nothing new."
The Postal Service has long used contract workers on rural routes, including those in the Sierra Nevada foothills, and scores of private businesses offer official postal services. The post office in Fig Garden Village is privately run, for instance.
Postal officials say that in a competitive business environment, the move will save the agency money because the private contractors aren't paid benefits and use their own vehicles, among other savings.
Officials said postal patrons will see no change in service levels. But the union that represents the letter carriers says handing over urban delivery routes that have historically been handled by Postal Service employees will mean a drop in quality.
Drew Von Bergen, director of public relations for the National Association of Letter Carriers, a union that represents 230,000 city-delivery carriers across the nation, said Postal Service letter carriers are often career employees who work the same route for years, bonding with the neighborhood.
"You will not find that with a contract operation, which is here today, maybe gone tomorrow," he said. Private contractors "don't see this as necessarily a career. A year from now, they may be a bartender or going to school."
Von Bergen also said the union fears this is part of a larger effort by the Postal Service to privatize its operation. He said handing new urban routes to private contractors will be followed by handing them existing urban routes now covered by postal employees.
The Postal Service's board of governors is a "very conservative, pro-privatization crowd who would love nothing better than to see Postal Service jobs split up," Von Bergen said.
He said the only unresolved issue left in a new contract with letter carriers is the Postal Service's "refusal to say existing territories of city letter carriers will be preserved."
Postal officials insist all existing routes will be handled by Postal Service employees, and smaller subdivisions — unless there is a chance that they could be part of a large new growth area — will be added to these existing routes.
"This is only for the new growth and only in high-growth areas," Sensano said.
Her job is to keep tabs on Fresno's growth and develop new routes. Her small office in the Woodward Park Station post office contains a map littered with colored arrows marking new and upcoming subdivisions.
She said the Fresno post office plans to contract out routes in new subdivisions with 200 or more houses.
With 710 acres and up to 2,800 planned housing units, the new Copper River Ranch route is expected to be the first of many in the subdivision. By Sensano's measuring stick, Copper River could have more than a dozen private contractors delivering mail when it is fully built out.
For now, postal officials are starting slow.
Majors is a test case for the future. A grandmother who relocated from Los Angeles to be closer to her parents and grandchildren, the former electrician felt the job would give her more free time.
Each day, she comes to the Woodward Park Station post office to gather the mail and load it into her silver Plymouth minivan.
She wears street clothes, and only a Postal Service badge identifies her, though she may in the future wear other identifiable Postal Service items, such as a hat.
She must buy her own auto insurance. If she wants to take a vacation, she must find, train and pay her replacement, who must be approved by the Postal Service.
Majors got the job through a bidding process. Postal officials did not say how much she is being paid.
Right now, Majors is only taking mail to 50 homes in the Copper River development, and she works only a few hours a day. As new houses are built, her route will grow.
Postal officials said it will be easier to train private contractors such as Majors — and their job should go quicker — because they will not deliver mail door to door.
They will instead deliver in areas served by community mailboxes, where homeowners go to a central location in their subdivision to gather their mail, much the way apartment dwellers have been doing for years.
These boxes often serve 16 homes, though two placed side by side can double that, giving a letter carrier 32 homes at one stop, and are commonplace in new subdivisions, said Ben Romero, customer relations coordinator for the U.S. Postal Service in Fresno, Clovis and Madera.