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Vermont rural mail carriers may get less pay for same or longer routes with new USPS system

 Close up of a USPS mail box with the USPS store and parking in the background
Adiah Gholston
Vermont Public

Mail carriers in rural Vermont are facing pay cuts and longer routes. And some Vermonters report not getting mail delivered on a timely basis.

That’s according to Seven Days reporter Rachel Hellman, who recently dove into how policy changes with the U.S. Postal Service are impacting mail delivery in Vermont.

She sat down with Vermont Public's Mary Williams Engisch to break down her reporting. Their conversation below has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Mary Williams Engisch: I'd like to talk about both mail carriers and then the mail receivers in some rural areas in the state because you found both groups are affected.

First, can you set the stage for us? On May 6, the U.S. Postal Service tweaks the formula that it uses to calculate salaries for mail carriers. Can you break down that change?

 Portrait of Rachel Hellman sitting at a restaurant
Jeb Wallace-Brodeur
Seven Days reporter Rachel Hellman

Rachel Hellman: Absolutely. So this change has been years in the making. It's been a result of negotiations between the National Rural Letter Carriers' Association and USPS.

One thing that's worth noting is that rural mail carriers and city carriers have different systems that determine their salary. City mail carriers, who are hourly employees and are paid overtime, get different pay than rural carriers who are paid a salary based on an annual count of the amount of mail they handle. For years, this count was done manually. A supervisor would go with mail carrier and literally count how much mail they were delivering on their route.

This new system is essentially an algorithm that takes a daily count of the mail passing through sorting machines, postal facilities and handheld scanners that carriers are required to take with them on their routes. What I heard from mail carriers is that no one really got clear instructions on how to use these scanners. USPS actually acknowledged this, that there was issues with the implementation of their new program.

Essentially, these scanners are tracking information that determines how long it takes to do a route. In reality, these carriers should be scanning it pretty regularly and at very specific intervals to get an accurate reading. But they weren't given — a lot of them at least — were not given this information. So, they're scanning it six times a day. Some of them said there were at least six specific scans they were supposed to do, when in reality, they should have been doing even more scans.

And you spoke to mail carriers covering these rural routes, specifically in Washington County, Windsor County. How did that formula change impact their incomes?

Yeah, it was pretty astounding. On a national scale, this formula resulted in two-thirds of all rural mail carriers having some form of pay cut.

I spoke with a few different carriers. One had a 15% pay cut from $54,000 per year to $46,000 per year, which is pretty significant. Another mail carrier had a $10,000 pay cut, and she had been with the postal service for 24 years.

I spoke with another carrier who had a 25% pay cut. He was making $100,000 a year, largely because he had worked overtime during Christmas, which is one of the few times that rural mail carriers can get overtime pay.

And the some of the mail carriers that you spoke with, too, their routes actually got longer. What is the explanation there?

Essentially, because this algorithm is determining their count-to-time ratio, a lot of people I spoke with, they were only going to get paid for a certain number of hours because that's what the algorithm determined.

They said that for some of their co-workers, it would spit out a different number of mail with an even shorter amount of time. So, it's this weird time-mail proportion that, to a lot of mail carriers, does not feel accurate to the actual amount of time it takes to deliver the mail.

What's the potential impact of the change? Could we see workers quitting because of this?

I think that's a real fear. Already, people have spoken about thinking that they're going to maybe quit or hearing rumors from other co-workers.

The context for all this is that — Seven Days has already done some reporting on the mail carrier shortage that's in existence — the Postal Service is not just a resource; it's really like a beating heart of rural life.

If you have meds, that might be the only way you can get them. It's a really serious issue — not being able to deliver all the mail and having to be choosy about which routes to do.

"And perhaps even most alarming, a number of them reported to me — and this was confirmed by a spokesperson with the Postal Service — that some Vermont postmasters are having to drive to other towns to cover mail routes that have been left unstaffed."
Rachel Hellman

And mail carriers from other states are actually being brought to Vermont to cover unfilled positions.

Well, let's pivot to people receiving or not receiving their mail. A lot of complaints have been building over the last few years that mail delivery has been unreliable for a lot of folks in rural areas. What did you find there in your reporting?

In talking with one of my other colleagues who does a lot of reporting on this, she was able to send me loads of Front Porch Forum conversations of neighbors saying, "Hey, I haven't gotten my mail for a week." This is something that was really exacerbated during the pandemic, but it's still causing an issue in rural areas.

There's long-standing effects. On small business viability, you can't really run a small business if you can't get the deliveries you need. Also, on quality of life and health for a lot of rural Vermonters.

Vermonters are frustrated that they're not getting their mail, and postal workers are frustrated that they're not able to deliver the mail on a timely manner.

Well, what's next in the in the story? I understand Vermont's congressional delegation, they're pushing back on the salary formula change.

Sen. Bernie Sanders, with six other senators, penned a letter urging the Postal Service to delay implementing the new pay system until its "serious flaws were dealt with."

On May 17, Rep. Becca Balint questioned Postmaster General Louis DeJoy during a House Oversight and Accountability Committee hearing. She voiced to me that she did not feel like her question — "Are rural Americans going to receive the services that they need?'" —was going to be met.

There is a grievance filed by the National Rural Letter Carriers' Association. Some of the postal workers I spoke with said that they're waiting to see what the result of that is before they quit. Only time will tell.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message.

Mary Williams Engisch is a local host on All Things Considered.
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