Vincent Safuto’s Weblog

Notes and observations

The Postal Service, Lance Armstrong and the cheating culture

When I heard that Lance Armstrong finally was caught red-handed doping himself for his bicycle races, it hit me that I needed to connect his behavior with that of his team’s major sponsor, the U.S. Postal Service.

I was a worker at the post office during the time when the Postal Service was making a big deal about its sports sponsorships. Many people considered the sponsorships to be wastes of money, but apparently the top postal brass derived some pretty major benefits from it.

That’s hardly a surprise. Postal managers in the late 1980s and early 1990s were adept at all sorts of deceptions, and those who were aware of them were advised to keep quiet if they knew what was good for them.

Most people did. The Postal Inspection Service was totally untrustworthy to most workers, especially after some drug busts at postal facilities using informants with criminal records who lied about buying drugs from workers. The matter was mostly hushed up, a lot of inspectors and their bosses were promoted and the mail kept on coming. It was pretty much an open secret that if you knew about some corruption in your postal facility, the best approach was to look away. Sure, there were posters that advertised the 800 number to call to report something that wasn’t right, but only the naïve and the foolish did so.

Such calls came right back to the plant manager, who might be in on the corruption you uncovered, and life could turn to hell pretty quickly, and all for a few million phantom pieces of mail.

The Postal Service’s deals with Lance Armstrong showed that the organization’s top brass had found a fellow cheater, and figured that tainted victories were still victories, and the bonus checks could be kept and cashed.

It was an open secret in the mid-1980s that to justify the use of high-speed mail processing equipment, the same mail was run through machinery multiple times “to make the numbers.” I’d see workers sweeping the machines of mail, then bringing it back to be run again. When time was up, it would be dispatched and the counters checked. Facilities like the one I was in were reporting record mail volume because there were several machines on which the mail could be run again and again.

It was an open secret that postal whistleblowers were dealt with very harshly and shown no mercy. In the employee manual, there were all sorts of guarantees of protection from retaliation and adverse actions, including discipline, suspension, firing, schedule changes, etc., but the reality was that postal management ignored the manual when it suited them.

Postal inspectors did little with reports of “phantom” mail or other whistleblowing. Their sympathies were with the management, not the workers, and investigations of managers were swept under the rug. If a manager’s offense was bad enough, he or she could be transferred to another post office, possibly with a promotion.

I had seen enough cheating to realize that I needed to move to another career, so I began college in 1988. While at the university in the early 1990s, I noticed that a student in one of my classes was working at the postal facility. We began to talk, and she told me what she was doing. She wasn’t working for the Postal Service, but for a private labor company, and they weren’t moving the mail.

“It’s a mail test,” she said.

In fact, the workers sat at tables and flipped through all the letters that were going out before they were run through the barcode sorters. It seemed a waste to do that, until several years after I quit the Postal Service, when I heard of a facility in West Virginia in which the management had been caught cheating on mail tests.

The thing about mail tests was that they were easy to cheat on. Originally, the last mail put on a truck – and the first to be unloaded — was a clearly marked sack of test mail that was to be handed to a boss upon arrival. The boss would note the date and time, and report that the mail had arrived on time.

Concerns over cheating had led to the use of a private accounting firm that had “reporters” who would tell the company when the test mail arrived. Mail was supposed to be stamped and dropped into mailboxes at various locations so the Postal Service would not know that the mail was test mail and thus expedite all mail according to its class.

The trouble was that one day in West Virginia, a person had simply dropped off the mail at the window, and the bosses knew who the “reporters” were and where they lived. With that information, they spread the word to keep an eye out for mail addressed to those people, and as part of the scheme to inflate their performance numbers hired people to check every piece of mail they processed so that the test mail could be removed from the regular mail stream and sent by Express Mail to the destination, then delivered as if it were regular mail and the bosses had no idea that it was special.

I wonder, did the West Virginia people get the idea from the people who were my bosses? Because that’s what my classmate and those other people must have been doing: flipping mail to find the test mail.

One of the biggest cheating scandals in the Postal Service was the tale of a facility in the Midwest that managed to win the Postmaster General’s productivity award. The first prize was a visit from his holiness, Postmaster General Marvin (the moron) Runyon. He gave a speech on what a genius he was, and they had a nice plaque for the wall.

Later, it was revealed that the facility’s managers had been exaggerating the mail volume reports, and they were caught. Of course, they got taps on the wrist and promotions for doing it, though the award was taken away.

The culture of cheating that Lance Armstrong and the Postal Service have internalized is something that is a sign that there are people out there who just cannot do things right. Just as Lance Armstrong tried to destroy people who said he was a fake and a fraud, the Postal Service tried to destroy anyone who dared to say that something was not right.

Technology is in the process of defeating the Postal Service’s existence. Soon all those managers who advanced on exaggerated numbers will find themselves looking for new jobs. And Lance Armstrong can go peddle his nonsense elsewhere. As for me, I hope he goes on a bike ride and gets hit by a postal truck.

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October 27, 2012 - Posted by | Life lessons, Living in the modern age | , , , , ,

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