Vincent Safuto’s Weblog

Notes and observations

Postal Service’s incompetent management can’t even train its employees

My comments are not statistically valid in any way, since they are based on experiences that happened more than 22 years ago, but maybe they’ll shed some light on what the Postal Service’s Office of Inspector General is trying to do, which is discover why the Postal Service is spending tens of thousands of dollars for each new hire and why they are nearly all quitting soon after starting work, and why the IG will write a report that’s ultimately ignored.

I was a mailhandler in the Postal Service from January 1983 to June 1994. I was eager at the start, as most postal employees are, to become good at my job and to advance my career. I had heard that the Postal Service was a bad place to be an ambitious worker but was determined to be different. Even when I discovered that the mailhandler craft was disdained as “the strong backs and weak minds” of the system, I was determined to prove everyone wrong.

Having worked for United Parcel Service, I had few fears of the prospect of postal privatization, which I saw as a steppingstone to advancement opportunity. I had thrived at UPS, where I was a Christmas-temp, and had even been advanced from unloading large trailers to pre-loading the famous brown trucks that drivers took on their routes. I worked in a facility that had 40 workers on the night shift and one supervisor, and the workers pushed hard to get the job done because they were paid for a full night even if they got done early.

After I was assigned to the pre-loading, a second manager was brought in for the holiday rush, and part of her job was to help me learn ways to become more efficient in my work. Through her, I learned the importance of putting items in the truck in the correct order so the driver could deliver them. On a few occasions, I’d see a box with the dreaded “OOP” notation, meaning “out of place.” That meant that the driver had found the box but had passed the package’s destination and could not backtrack. I would have “made my book” at UPS but for the bad economy in early 1983. Still, I learned that it was important to train everyone fully in their jobs.

Needless to say, the Postal Service was a culture shock for me. I had taken the test for several crafts shortly after my discharge from the military, but was not betting on getting hired anytime soon. Indeed, I was beginning to pursue educational opportunities and when the Postal Service did hire me, I spent a couple of days wondering what I should do, as I had just started school and the schedule was going to be impossible for me to do both. At the time, I made the least bad choice and took the postal job.

Unlike the UPS facility, the postal facility had a horde of supervisors and managers, and training was not a priority. You learned as you went – if someone wanted to teach you – and while I was criticized for being to eager to learn outside my immediate work area I soon became good at my job. I was working in the Long Island area, where the union was pretty strong and management pretty laid-back.

But I couldn’t afford to live in that area, and eventually moved to Florida. Here I could see the challenge of massive growth – part of the reason I moved there – and the desperate need for change. Supervisors were less tolerant of new-hires and some were very abusive toward workers. Sexual harassment of female employees was rampant and, despite the promises made at orientation, usually accusations were dealt with through threats and extreme abuse and retaliation.

Again, training was never conducted for mailhandlers or casuals. (There was training for LSM operators, and that had to go continually because management seemed to have a goal of 100 percent turnover on the LSMs. They came close, especially with new-hires, very few of whom made their probation.)

I made it clear to my bosses that I wanted training to advance into management, and was basically shot down. Still, I managed to learn that there were correspondence courses I could take, including an introduction to postal management. I was warned that taking correspondence courses could actually hurt my advancement chances, but decided to take them nonetheless, figuring I’d learn skills that I could use outside the Postal Service.

The basic postal supervisors’ course, which no one else took in my facility, was an eye-opener. I really worked that course hard, learning how to deal with people and how to talk to them. Needless to say, reality was quite different but I have always found theory to be a good place to start. I was advised to stay away from the local community college but found that some of the bosses were teaching classes there in postal operations, so I took them and was not afraid to express my views. I probably destroyed my advancement chances in the Postal Service but it was worth it.

The funny thing was that – especially after the violence that broke out in facilities – I was mainly parroting what the postmaster general had been saying. Employees were reporting abusive work environments and often paying the price in severe retaliation despite promises of no retaliation. I learned that postal management was a good place if you were a liar, a sex harasser, an abuser, a practitioner of “creative postal math” and an all-around bad person.

When I finally got a chance to put theory into practice, the reality was that I was a terrible postal manager, as bad or worse than those I criticized. I was relieved and sent back to the mailhandler craft.

At this point, I had a decision to make. My first instinct was to quit. I have always been a deliberative person, though, and in my late 20s was too mature to act impulsively.

So I decided that the Postal Service was not the career for me, but decided to stay and use it to further my own goals. Despite the warnings, I trekked to the community college and began the long process of applying to become a student there. It was a lot of paperwork, and I had to take the ACT, but in the summer of 1988 I began my first course, Introduction to the Social Sciences.

I was advised repeatedly by people in and out of the Postal Service that college was a waste of time, and everyone had a Cousin Harvey who had a fancy degree and was working the drive-through at McD’s but I also learned that when people are afraid of your ambition, they’ll do anything and tell any lies to try and stop you from achieving.

College was like a dream come true for me. Not needing to take out loans or use Pell grants, I eagerly took classes and in three years had a two-year degree. I transferred to the state university and finished my college degree there in April 1994.

I was unusual. The Postal Service had then and has now very, very few college graduates, especially in its management and executive ranks. The facility I worked at in West Palm Beach had almost no college graduates in management, several high school dropouts in management and even a person with just a seventh-grade education in a management position. I had stopped even applying for postal management jobs, knowing I’d be rejected out of hand, and was soon searching for a new job outside the Postal Service.

I was gaining work experience through volunteer work and soon I realized that the best way to escape the postal handcuffs was simple: quit, then I’d have to be more aggressive in my job search.

To make a long story short, I did just that and soon was landing jobs. The confidence gained was immeasurable, and I feel sorry for those who are having a hard time and lack that confidence. I hear “no” a lot more, but that’s age discrimination, sadly. Too bad. I’ve been working and improving my skills and it saddens me that I might soon have no place where they will be wanted. The skills will be needed, but by someone younger than me.

The Postal Service has again abandoned the idea of training, from what I hear. New hires are thrown into work and fired if they cannot figure out the job. It’s a waste of money to hire people just so you can fire them, but as I saw 22 years ago, it’s the only way the Postal Service knows.

I still remember one holiday season when we had a mass of temporary employees milling around, and a supervisor who reprimanded me for showing them how to do their job. “It’s a waste of time to train these stupid assholes,” she said. “They were looking for a job here, so I know they’re idiots. We shouldn’t train people who are just going to quit or be fired.”

I tried to explain that part of the reason the new hires were having problems was because no one was explaining how to do the job, but she was a postal supervisor and I was a worker. I mentioned the postmaster general’s comments, and she said, “Fuck him. The supervisors run the Postal Service and not the postmaster general. Listen to us and not him.”

That attitude is alive and well in today’s Postal Service, and why its grand strategies will always fail.

June 20, 2016 Posted by | Life lessons, Living in the modern age, Uncategorized | , , | 4 Comments

Community college is where your future can happen

When I heard about President Obama’s proposal for free community college, I knew that it wouldn’t go over very well.

Sadly, most folks despise the president’s ideas. If he recommended beating children bloody in school parking lots for rules infractions, people would come out against that.

Still, encouraging people to get a two-year degree, even if it costs a lot, has to be less expensive than incarcerating people. A community college president once told me that it cost the state of Florida about $50,000 a year to lock someone up in prison; by comparison, even the most costly state university was a bargain at about $25,000 a year, and community colleges cost about half that or less.

Unfortunately for Florida, the state’s leaders fell under the influence of a well-meaning but terribly wrong adviser who recommended preparing for a tsunami of violent youthful offenders on their way up from childhood. Seeking to be ahead of the curve, the state built several very expensive prisons and staffed them up, waiting for the surge of criminality that never materialized. Out in rural areas, the prisons are still there, but the youths never appeared in the expected numbers.

The reality is that we now live in a society where workers need education beyond high school to get a good-paying job, and those who drop out are going to find themselves in an impossible situation. Back when I was a youth, there were all these ads pushing “high school equivalency diplomas” and I remember the pitches: “He can’t get ahead in business because he lacks a high school diploma.” You could replace “high school diploma” with “two-year college degree,” and you won’t be far off the mark.

I know all this from personal experience.

For me, Palm Beach Community College (now Palm Beach State College) basically reinvented my life. I went into that place in August 1988 as a frustrated veteran and disgruntled postal worker whose dreams of career advancement had been dashed because I thought the Postal Service existed to serve customers.

I left the community college with a two-year (associate’s) degree in journalism, a new peer group of smart friends and the confidence to continue at the university. In April 1994, I graduated from Florida Atlantic University with a degree in communications and within two years was working as a newspaper copy editor.

I worked hard in those years, taking night shifts at the post office and attending college during the day instead of sleeping. But my instructors at PBCC and my professors at FAU gave of themselves, and I am forever in their debt.

At community college, the confidence I gained was well worth the sacrifices I had to make.

I remember getting a variety of advice. Dorothy Martin, my second cousin Angelo’s sister-in-law, gave me so much encouragement. “Whatever you do there,” she said, “take Watson B. Duncan’s courses. He’s the greatest teacher.”

I took those courses, and Dorothy was right about him.

Others were less enthused. My postal bosses were downright negative, advising me that college was a waste of time, and wouldn’t help my advancement in the post office. “We don’t like to promote college people,” I was often told. “They think knowing things is the key to getting things done right.”

What they feared, I later learned, was the worker with a brain and the willingness to use it. I later used the skills I learned in community college to start my own underground postal employee newsletter, “Samizdat,” and even sent copies to the postmaster general. Unfortunately, they were written above his reading level, and his minions were not impressed with my brilliance.

The education I received at community college gave me the tools I needed to counter the anti-education rhetoric I heard at the post office, and I can still remember the last night I wasted at the post office, leaving that shithole facility in West Palm Beach with its cheating on the Price-Waterhouse testing, exaggerated mail volume reporting, mail destruction in the machinery and human destruction by managers such as Gary Miller and Terry Cahill, not to mention Barbara Shaler and Shirley Cordle.

I drove off to an uncertain future, but one that had limitless possibilities. On the way home to my house in Lake Worth, I drove on Congress Avenue in West Palm Beach past Palm Beach Community College.

It was on the left, and I remembered that first day when I had gone on the campus and requested a course catalog and began the process of getting myself admitted.

Now I was heading into a future that that wonderful place had opened up for me, and I gave the place a hand salute as I drove by.

Today, I read about community colleges like State College of Florida (formerly Manatee Community College) and I wish I could go back there, take classes, sit in the sun before the classes start, talk with my fellow students, pull all-nighters at home, spend lots of time there on the student newspaper and just be a part of the academic community.

Community colleges are wondrous places, and I’m not the only one who got a life-course correction in those classrooms.

So let’s support community colleges and get behind plans, no matter where they come from, to get more people to attend community college. Our nation will benefit, of course, but so will the many people who find a new life and a new career in a place where learning is treasured, and students matter.

That’s what happens at community colleges.

 

January 12, 2015 Posted by | Education, Life lessons | , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Ongoing Veterans Affairs disaster makes me glad I stayed away

I have been riveted to the current scandal to hit the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Although I have never had to avail myself of its services, I do have a number in case I need medical care at the VA hospital in St. Petersburg. Of course, my priority is pretty low, being a non-combat veteran who served for four years in peacetime, but when I was unemployed it was a great comfort to know that I might eventually get medical care if I needed it.

Fortunately, I found jobs that offered health insurance, so the envelope from the VA sits in the cabinet.

But when I was unemployed, there were friends of mine who suggested that I try to land a job at a Veterans Affairs hospital, but while I did do searches for positions, I was hesitant to even put my name forward. For one thing, the U.S. government’s jobs website is a mess, and the application process is a bureaucratic nightmare. Landing a newspaper job isn’t easy, either, but it’s nowhere near as convoluted as getting the most basic federal government job.

One of my big fears regarding in particular the VA and generally the rest of the federal government was the work environment. I would read horror stories from federal employees about their workplaces, and think to myself, “That’s like the post office, only worse.”

Believe me, in my 11 years and five months of Postal Service employment – from January 1983 to December 1985 in Garden City, N.Y., and from January 1986 to June 1994 in West Palm Beach, Fla. – I saw things, especially in the latter location, that made me want to escape from there as quickly as I could.

I did escape, by attending college from August 1998 to April 1994, leaving with a four-year degree that opened countless doors of opportunity for me. I quit the Postal Service happily and vowed never to work for a government agency again.

When you hear about secret appointment lists at VA facilities, you might wonder why no one would openly report such things. Well, the reason is simple: because employees in the federal government know that the penalty for whistleblowing, even if it’s proven, is the end of your employment at the agency and your career anywhere else in government. Despite promises of no retaliation, retaliation begins almost as soon as the whistleblowing complaint is filed.

One of my mentors from West Palm Beach, a retired business executive, was in charge of volunteers at the Riviera Beach VA hospital, and I’ll never forget what he told me about that place. He said he was glad he didn’t depend on the place for a paycheck because if you worked there, really cared about the veterans and tried to make a career of it, the top brass and the top administrator would destroy you. The brass hated the volunteers because they couldn’t control them or intimidate them, he said.

Go to a federal office and look at the posters on the wall. People in the know anywhere – including the Postal Service – know calling the Inspector General of their agency will lead to the destruction of their life. I personally knew better than to report anything to the almost brutally corrupt Postal Inspection Service and later the Inspector General.

Anyone who worked in the postal facility in the 1980s and early 1990s knew there was stuff going on that should have been reported. Mail was run through machinery repeatedly to “get the numbers up,” tens and sometimes hundreds of locked and sealed trailers full of bulk mail were left in staging yards and mail presorted by carrier route was often broken up and resorted (despite postal discounts and the presorting needed to avoid higher postal costs) to make the numbers higher.

A postal facility in the Midwest in the early 1990s won the Postmaster General’s award for being the most productive. I remember going in on my own time to see the film that was made about Marvin Runyon’s visit to the place and speech he gave. A few months later, it was revealed that managers of the facility had used “postal math” in reporting mail volune: 1 million pieces of mail plus 1 million pieces of mail equals 3 billion pieces of mail, or something to that effect.

Of course, none of the managers got a serious punishment.

As in the Postal Service, in the VA managers are “rewarded” with promotions for incompetence, brutality and playing games with appointments. It’s a tragedy that Gen. Eric Shinseki is going to have to lose his job over this. As several media outlets have noted, the VA needs a leader who is going to crack heads and fire people, not wait for reports and talk about how dedicated he is to the needs of veterans.

It took retirees who are insulated now from the reprisals and retaliation that the VA brass would unleash to reveal the extent of what was going on. Just as retirees and ex-postal workers like myself talk about the corruption of the facilities I worked at, retirees and ex-VA workers know the inside scoop on what happened, and are becoming unafraid to tell what they know.

Unfortunately, in the Postal Service the top brass got more pay and government-paid transfers for their crimes and misconduct. The cynicism of the postal workforce can be illustrated by two incidents I recall.

In one, shortly after the shootings in Edmond, Okla., an inspection service report on the environment at postal facilities noted that while there were all these motivational posters on the walls of postal facilities, nobody believed them, or believed that reporting a postal crime would have any effect except to bring down retaliation and reprisals.

In West Palm Beach one time, the postmaster general appeared on a poster with the following feel-good phrases:

“You have the right to be treated with respect at work.”

“You have the right to have your supervisor show you respect.”

Someone had written in a marker, between the words “You” and “have,” the word “don’t.”

Just as most people in Postal Service management were then and are now mindless bureaucratic time-servers counting the days until their next paycheck or promotion, the leaders at the Department of Veterans Affairs, many of whom could not have been bothered to serve in the military – even in peacetime – are just collecting their six-figure salaries and waiting to move up to the next-higher position.

All this hullaballoo about waiting lists will die down after a few top people and political appointees are chopped off, and then the next group of VA bureaucrats will assume their positions, and the atrocities will continue.

And that’s why the VA isn’t worth my time and talents, just like the Postal Service wasn’t worth my time and talents back in the day.

May 18, 2014 Posted by | Life lessons, Politics | , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

In Florida, economic development schemes leave lives in tatters

It used to be that the Sunshine State was the home of land and real estate schemes designed to separate the gullible from their money.

“Florida swampland” was pitched to northern investors as a can’t-miss proposition, and there have been numerous booms and busts in the state’s real estate markets through the decades, starting in the 1920s and continuing into the 2000s.

At various times, various regions were said to be the new boomtowns, including Immokalee, where it was rumored in the 1920s that Henry Ford was going to build a new city with a production plant. Actually, according to a fascinating book, “Fordlandia,” the city ended up in a remote part of Brazil, but now it is mostly abandoned.

Other areas of Florida where land deals proliferated included the city of North Port, which was laid out in the 1970s and pitched to mostly northeastern folk as being near Port Charlotte and Sarasota, while actually a long distance away. Only recently has North Port come into its own, though its growth was shattered by the Great Recession, leaving the city and its citizens in financial ruin.

Some boomtowns have had staying power. Orlando has ridden the Disney boom up and down, and it shows no signs of going away as the attractions business is popular. The Villages has proven to be a retirement community that probably won’t disappear anytime soon, either.

But it’s in the effort to create good-paying jobs that Florida has really gone through some wrenching boom and bust cycles. Different areas have latched onto different schemes, to the detriment of working people in Florida and the benefit of local elected officials.

I suppose my mind was directed this way because of the news today (Friday, Sept. 7, 2012) that Digital Domain’s facility in Port St. Lucie is closing down and its 300 employees, many hired within the past year and even the past few weeks, are going to lose their jobs.

According to The Palm Beach Post:

“State, Port St. Lucie and West Palm Beach officials hoped Digital Domain would spark a new animation industry in Florida. They promised the company $135 million in cash, financing, land and tax credits. West Palm Beach has promised Digital Domain $10 million in cash, downtown land valued at $9.8 million and a bond issue worth $15 million. But the city has paid none of those incentives so far.”

In addition, the state kicked in $20 million upfront, bypassing Enterprise Florida, which found problems with the plans for the company.

Ahhhh, there’s no business like show business like no business I know.

Virtually every city council, city commission or county commission in Florida has imagined that their area is the perfect location for something related to making movies or TV shows, and quite a few have fallen for the glitz and glamour of Hollywood, and have been conned by a smooth-talking operator into committing public money to some sort of economic development scheme involving movies.

In fact, it amazes me that local elected officials are oblivious of the failures of such schemes elsewhere in the state. That’s not to say that people go from region to region pitching doomed schemes, but that a similar scheme may pop up in one area, and then another, and then another.

Sanborn suckers
As I said, movie and TV schemes are a regular component of the Florida economic development environment. In Sarasota County, the Sanborn Studios experience should be a case study of how an economic development scheme can go awry. In this case, a local person who had hit it very big financially pitched the idea of building a film studio in Lakewood Ranch, which is on the border of Sarasota and Manatee counties.

The Bradenton Herald covered this story spectacularly.

Founder Ken Sanborn claimed that he had a can’t-miss TV series called “Miami 24/7,” about competing TV news helicopters, in which Sarasota would stand in for Miami. The series would not be on U.S. television but would be sold to overseas TV.

Of course, no economic development scheme can happen without government money, so Sanborn managed to gull the Sarasota County Commission into paying $650,000 upfront with the promise of more than 100 jobs paying around $70,000 a year. Needless to say, he would need people trained in the film arts, so Sanborn swung deals to have local educational institutions offer compatible training at a high cost and fueled by student loans.

As the dates for the start of production of “Miami 24/7” slipped, excuses flowed out of Sanborn Studios. An excellent story about the backgrounds of some of the people involved appeared in the Bradenton Herald.

In another story, the paper noted that the company had requested from Sarasota County more money, $500,000, for “post-production” equipment, and that the county was re-evaluating the company.

Soon after, the “Behind the scenes” story in the Bradenton Herald (mentioned above) revealed that not much was going on at Sanborn Studios. On a regular working day, the parking lot was nearly deserted, and the reporter learned that of 21 people employed, several had been laid off. Of course, company executives tried to spin just about everything from the failure to hire enough people to justify the incentives to the failure to start production on “Miami 24/7” to the recent layoffs to changing “Miami 24/7” from an episodic TV series to a movie – to land some state movie making incentives – as a sign of the strength of the company.

After that, Sanborn Studios canceled plans to buy land for a new facility, left its leased space by the Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport and news of the company stopped.

Maybe it’s a good thing that before Sanborn Studios died early in the process. The county is out the $650,000, and the state lost some money, too, but not as much as was lost with Digital Domain.

The danger of giving money upfront to businesses that make grand promises has been shown countless times. Back in the 1990s, when Palm Beach County was trying to attract businesses, it handed out money on a wing and a prayer to companies, and the results were catastrophic.

After several well-publicized failures, officials became more skeptical and questioning of companies that got incentives. Palm Beach County officials turned down most incentives for Digital Domain, though apparently the city of West Palm Beach took a small hit. But the person in charge of Digital Domain (until Friday, at least) John Textor, simply took his dog-and-pony show to recession-battered Port St. Lucie, and it looks like that city is on the hook for interest on the bonds it floated to build the company’s soon-to-be-closed headquarters.

The lesson here is that business development is not a slam-dunk, and government incentives are not a reliable indicator of the future success of a business.

It’s a pity that even with all the examples we’ve seen, local elected officials in Florida have yet to learn that lesson.

September 8, 2012 Posted by | Life lessons, Living in the modern age | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Are shopping malls the new dodo birds?

I was reading an article recently at The Palm Beach Post website that described the state of one of my favorite shopping malls: the Boynton Beach Mall.

The Palm Beach Mall, where I had my first job after quitting the Postal Service – at the Electronics Boutique – has a date with the big iron ball soon, but the news that the Boynton Beach Mall is struggling really hit home for me.

I spent tons of money in that place, and lots of time there, too. One time, there was a string quartet playing in the mall, and it was so nice. They were happy when I came up and said I enjoyed the music. I bought my first computer, a Hyundai 8086 PC, at the Burdines store’s upstairs computer department, and used to hang out there with the manager and his assistant, playing golf on one of the Macs.

The car dealer Saturn of Delray Beach had a store in the mall, and I checked out the Saturns and decided which one I wanted. I bought it at the dealer, of course, but my initial contact with that now-gone car company was in the Boynton Beach Mall.

The Post story said that a megachurch is looking to take some space there. It’s kind of sad that the mall will lose a retailer, but that’s the way things are trending now. There have always been dead malls, and malls on life support, but now it’s getting so even the ones in well-populated areas are dying.

Of course, the Boynton Beach Mall has had its share of madness. Several years ago, on New Year’s Eve, a gang fight broke out that ended in gunfire, arrests and the early closing of the mall. Still, it didn’t have the wild reputation of the Palm Beach Mall. When the Post reported on it being closed, the “missing-front-teeth” brigade with their creative spelling made sure to comment and spew racist nonsense.

The Palm Beach Mall has a spectacular location, but I sometimes wonder if it really is all about location, location, location. I mean, the Cross-County Mall at the intersection of Okeechobee Boulevard and Military Trail in West Palm Beach has what is probably still the best location in the county, and it died, too. At the end, there were a few stores open, and all that was really left was the movie theater.

New malls open up, and that steals a lot of business. The Gardens Mall and Town Center at Boca Raton undoubtedly drew customers, but I have to say that when I lived in Lake Worth, the Boynton Beach Mall was a hop, skip and jump away. It was convenient, and near other shopping, and I didn’t have to battle I-95 traffic and tough turns as much as I had to in The Gardens and in Boca Raton.

Malls have less attraction to me now. The two biggest things that drew me in were the bookstores and the computer software stores, and they are dying for the most part. I really don’t buy many books anymore, and buy less software. Things have changed in both industries, and so have I.

I wonder if someday the Boynton Beach Mall will have its date with the wrecking ball. That will be a very sad day, but maybe it has to happen. Of course, I won’t be there. My life is elsewhere now, but when I read about these malls and what’s happening, I still have the memories of the fun times I had, the first dates with women I had there and so much more.

February 21, 2012 Posted by | Life lessons, Living in the modern age | , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Seeds of Postal Service’s decline planted years ago

In June 1994, leaving the employ of the U.S. Postal Service seemed like the biggest mistake I had ever made.

Friends, relatives, co-workers and postal managers advised me that I’d starve to death out in “the private sector,” and that as soon as a job interviewer found out I had a postal past I’d be removed from consideration for employment. I didn’t feel that way, though, and it turns out I was right.

It was easy to understand their viewpoint, however. Many people sought lifelong jobs, economic security and a sense of purpose in the Postal Service and found it there. Sure, the postal facility in West Palm Beach, Fla., where I worked for more than eight years of my nearly 11½ years in the Postal Service, was far from a workplace where insight, understanding and forward thinking were encouraged, but for many people it was the only job they ever knew. The devil you know is often a lesser threat than the one you don’t, and that kept people from considering other careers, pursuing educational opportunities and eventually leaving the Postal Service.

I was a rebel. An outlier.

For six years, I had pursued higher education at a community college and then a university, working at night at the postal facility and taking classes during the day. Thanks to a set schedule that never changed, a benefit of being in a union job, I could plan my semesters, find the courses I needed and even participate in a couple of extracurricular activities at college. Thanks to the good postal pay, I was able to cover my living expenses and get a bachelor’s degree without taking out a student loan. During lunch breaks, I’d sit in the employee cafeteria with headphones on, studying and doing homework while listening to Mozart and Beethoven, and dream of my future outside those walls.

In many ways, it was the best time of my life. I had given up my hopes of advancing within the Postal Service and was on a new and better path.

Others thought I had gone around the bend psychologically. Out of the thousands of workers at the postal facility, only one other had gone to college at the same time I did and graduated, and then moved on to better things. I was determined to be the second one.

By the early 1990s, the reality was that computers were here to stay, and online services were becoming popular. People found they could contact each other in writing without writing a letter, putting a stamp on it and mailing it through the Postal Service. Businesses pumped out catalogs and advertising mail, and some postal facilities were getting close to gridlock.

“The mail will never be replaced, so long as senior citizens can’t figure out computers,” I heard from postal managers. “And they’re too old to learn to use them.”

But I knew that wasn’t true, because I’d seen retired folks take to computers and discover the wonders of email. Computers were becoming easier to use. Businesses were learning how to use the Internet for functions that had, in the past, taken place through the mail. Much of what we take for granted about the online world was in its formative stages then, but depending on who you asked I was either out of my mind or correct in my belief that the Postal Service was going to lose this technology war.

In 1993, I attended a postal “Career Awareness Conference” to see if there was finally any chance that I could advance in the system. I had started in college in 1988 after two years of mostly futile efforts to get promoted to even entry-level management; I again wanted to see if there was any future advancement in the Postal Service for someone like me.

If nothing else, the conference showed me that I was on the right track out the door. “God has taken the Postal Service under His protection,” one worker declared. “He won’t let anything bad happen.” That sort of thinking, while comforting, didn’t take into account that alternatives to the mail were already in use, and more were on the way. Other signs were more worrisome. In Florida, hundreds of able-bodied workers were on “injury comp” and not touching the mail, and virtually every postal installation had a horde of allegedly injured “Equal Employment Opportunity” staffers who made a postal salary while making photocopies and handing each other paperwork for 40 hours a week.

Training for newly hired workers was non-existent, and most of the new hires I saw in my years in West Palm Beach quit soon after starting the job or were fired, though not before royally messing things up due to a lack of training. A supervisor once took issue with the fact that I was teaching newly hired workers their jobs, declaring, “It’s a waste of time to train them because they just quit after a month.” I tried to explain that training them might mean they’d stay awhile and do better work, but she declared that the fact that they were working for the Postal Service instead of doing something else was a clear indication of their lack of intelligence and untrainability.

In the Postal Service, position made you right, not experience or knowledge. I had to stop training newly hired workers and refuse to answer their questions.

I found this odd because in late 1982, after getting out of the Marine Corps, I had worked over the Christmas holiday for United Parcel Service, and even though I was a temporary worker, one of the two managers in the facility watched me work, taught me how to load the familiar brown trucks and explained how I could do my job better and more efficiently. I was flattered that even though I was a temporary worker for the holiday the company was willing to expend that kind of time, money and effort on me, and the supervisor said it was an investment for the company, even if I left or was let go – as I was — and never came back.

In the Postal Service, though, training – except for the letter sorting machines and other sorting devices — was considered a waste of time that took resources away from “productive” work. “Most people who come to work here are too dumb to work anywhere else,” a human resources manager told me one time. “So what’s the point of showing them how to do anything?”

Such a viewpoint was even expressed to new hires at new employee orientation, which shocked me. In all my years of working since the Postal Service, I have never worked for a company, no matter how menial the job, where orientation began with an insult for coming to work there.

Sadly, despite my own intellectual pretensions, I think that even if the Postal Service had given me more than a two-week tryout as a supervisor and manager, the outcome wouldn’t have changed. Technology is making the Postal Service obsolete; it’s just taking a very, very long time to work itself out.

I am part of the problem, too. I buy stamps perhaps once every two months, and transact most of my business online. I still pay a few bills by mail, and order products and services online. Still, I will miss the catalogs and occasional letters that land in my mailbox. It’s a hard fact that the decline and eventual fall of the Postal Service, at least in its current form, is an inevitability.

Change is very painful to people, and while some of us can embrace it and find new paths, there are many who believed that the Postal Service would never change, and never would face a serious challenge to its dominance. If there’s anyone left in the Postal Service with any foresight at all, they will see the approaching end. If not, they will be the first to pay the price.

December 1, 2011 Posted by | Life lessons, Living in the modern age | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Changing banks a giant hassle

Like a lot of people, I have often wondered why some folks stay in abusive relationships.

You see it on TV, where a battered woman keeps going back to a man who uses her for a punching bag, because she fears having to go it alone in life.

When I think about banking, though, it’s perfectly understandable.

In December 1985, I came down to West Palm Beach, Fla., to look for an apartment. I was moving forward with my plan to move from Long Island, N.Y., to the area and flew down to find a place. I found a nice one-bedroom apartment in a new condo complex off Jog Road in the unincorporated area. To the west were sugar cane fields that soon were burned off for the last time, and then developed into a housing development.

While in the area, I opened a bank account with an outfit called Barnett Bank. Its ads proclaimed it as Florida’s bank, and I figured that with all the branches and ATMs I had seen, this was where I should be banking.

Back then, getting started was pretty simple. I was paid every two weeks with a paper check that I could deposit in the bank so there were no complex arrangements to make with the HR department of the Postal Service. I got my checks and ATM card after I arrived with Tiger, my cat, in January 1986, and soon was working and banking with Barnett.

That state of affairs continued for years and years, but then NCNB Bank bought Barnett, and then NationsBank bought NCNB Bank, and then Bank of America bought NationsBank.

I just followed along out of force of habit, but also the fear of wrecked finances because I was by that time getting my paycheck direct-deposited, and I was worried about the chaos I had heard about if you change banks.

The banking relationship was pretty frustrating because Bank of America started charging fees for my checking account. Though a financial windfall in 2005 meant no more fees for a time, after I lost my job in 2008 I began to spend down my savings and checking accounts, and eventually fell below the minimum balance requirements. Once a month, Bank of America whacked out a $25 fee from my savings. According to my records, I paid more than $500 over the past three years in checking account fees.

But I feared changing banks, knowing that it wasn’t much better elsewhere and worrying about the impact on my direct deposit.

But then I bought a new car, and the lender, SunTrust, made me an offer I couldn’t refuse. If I changed to them, and changed my direct deposit to them, they’d give me $100 and mostly free checking.

So I made the change, and yesterday closed my checking and savings accounts at Bank of America.

The trouble is that now I am getting live paychecks from my employer until they are set up with the new bank, and I may get up to three paychecks mailed to me before direct-deposit is fully operational. So that means I have to physically deposit the checks on Saturday and wait until the following Tuesday for them to clear. That sucks.

As with everything else, there just has to be a better way. I suppose many banks rely on the fact that all the electronic banking we do ties us to them, and that changing is such a hassle that most of us would rather suffer and be abused by our bank than change to another.

I felt sorry for the lady I talked to at the Bank of America branch in Gainesville. I explained about how loyal BofA had been to me, making sure to extract $25 a month every month, money that I needed to survive but instead ended up going to a bank that has never ceased to seek handouts from the government.

In my opinion, I was rewarding its “loyalty” by going my own way. SunTrust may be no better, but it’s a change.

September 9, 2011 Posted by | Life lessons, Living in the modern age | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Living in the (postal) past

After the death of my cousin Angelo, I brought out my old VCR from retirement so I could watch the old videos he and I shot of our aviation adventures, as well as some stuff he had recorded.

Angelo loved cartoons, and one he especially enjoyed was called “The Great Pooch-ini,” in which an animated dog conducts an orchestra. I hope to find it on the seven VCR tapes marked “Cartoons” that I received after he died.

I have tapes in the storage unit, and one was marked “Space Shuttle and flying.” It turned out to be a long sequence Angelo and I made when watching the space shuttle take the Galileo space probe into space. The probe eventually went to the planet Jupiter and sent back amazing photos and data.

We saw the launch from Lake Worth beach, and it was great to see Angelo in all his glory.

Then there was a lot of aviating in Cessnas, with me and Angelo taking turns flying and shooting video with my old, large video camera, the one I bought from Sears. By comparison, my current video camera is tiny but takes better pictures. Go figure.

One sequence on the tape is interesting because it shows me at work in the postal facility in West Palm Beach. It’s actually from a WPTV news report on the Christmas rush as the post office, and there’s a brief shot of me sorting mail during a voice over.

What’s amazing is the talk of the surge of mail volume during the holiday season, and the sight of Paul Pickard, who was then the facility’s manager, brought back some memories.

Most top postal brass stayed as far away from the folks who did the actual work as possible. We were not considered human beings by postal management, and they had contact with us all the time, so you can imagine how the managers and administration types saw the people who made it possible for them to sit in their offices and shuffle paperwork.

Pickard became infamous to me when a group of LSM operators, finally driven beyond reason by a mentally disturbed postal manager, went to him as a group to demand that he be removed. I know the person they were protesting against. He was a sexual harasser and all-around jerk who had gone from union rep to 204B to robo-supervisor, and was legendary for his mistreatment of subordinates.

The news that he had been taken off the LSM reached the local newspaper, and Pickard commented that he talked to the workers all the time and was surprised by the protest.

I wrote a letter to the newspaper calling it bullshit, explaining that a person at Pickard’s level never interacted with workers, and that his kind really didn’t care about people – except for his own bosses – because we couldn’t do anything to advance his career.

The supervisor in question was transferred in a “pass the trash” maneuver to another area, where he commenced a new reign of terror.

Pickard, upon seeing the letter, actually called me in for a chat but kept asking me, “What’s the solution?” I told him that he was management and should be able to see it for himself.

Later, he retired into obscurity. It was a shock to see him in the news report, mainly because he was shown in a place he almost never appeared: on the workroom floor.

Based on what I’ve seen at sites like postalnews.com, it looks like not much has changed!

March 27, 2011 Posted by | Living in the modern age | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Game over for the Postal Service?

Watching the current travails of the U.S. Postal Service has been for me a kind of déjà vu all over again, as Yogi Berra would say.

I’ve bored my readers before with tales of my postal employment from January 1983 to June 1994, but bear with me while I mention it again.

I began working for the Postal Service at its Hicksville, N.Y., Sectional Center Facility in January 1983. I had taken the postal test – you could if you were a veteran, and I was – and asked to be considered for the new Western Nassau SCF – near Roosevelt Field in Garden City — that would be opening up soon. Only a couple of months later, I was called in, given a physical and told I was hired. Western Nassau wasn’t finished yet, but we’d work at Hicksville until it was.

The great attraction of the Postal Service was good pay, benefits and union representation. It wasn’t like the mail was going away anytime soon back then, though the recession of the early 1980s had really hit the system hard. Mail volume was coming back, though.

My starting salary was a princely $10.01 an hour, increased a few months later to $10.02 and then $10.56 an hour. With night differential of 10 percent and Sunday premium of 25 percent, I could afford to rent an illegal apartment in Plainview and even buy a bad used car. Still, I was free of my parents and on the move.

The main thing about the Postal Service was that then the great promise was that it was what I like to call “the Stasis Service.” It was here yesterday, today and would be here tomorrow. If you wanted, you could spend your whole life doing the same job at the same location in the same building for the same bosses, surrounded by the same people, or so it seemed.

I was of an ambitious bent, but career development was never the Postal Service’s strong suit. There was no formal way to get training for management or other jobs, and the union stratification meant that the test you took to get into the Postal Service could determine job assignments decades into the future.

In any case, as a mailhandler, I soon discovered that that craft was considered “the strong back and weak minds” of the Postal Service. In New York I never heard that phrase, but I heard it a lot in Florida after I transferred to West Palm Beach in January 1986.

The Postal Service’s view of technology was that it was all fine and dandy to use it to improve service and the transportation of the mail, but I think the top brass was blind-sided by the possibility that the same technological advances that could make the Postal Service more efficient could also eliminate it.

In January 1983, people may have had computers but very, very few had access to online services or the Internet and e-mail. Even in January 1986, there wasn’t much going on in the online realm. But I still remember reading sometime in 1987 that a local high school had been connected to the “Inter-net” and that this was the future.

The Postal Service just soldiered along, content to use the Private Express Statutes to keep competitors out of the paper mail business and the technology to improve its operations. As employees like myself bought computers, got connected to America OnLine and started exchanging e-mail, we realized that there was a whole system outside the Postal Service that could be a means of communication. But managers rarely listened to us workers back then.

I recall one manager telling me that senior citizens would never figure out computers, and serving them would be a profitable niche for the Postal Service for a long time to come.

In the 1992 presidential race, there was much talk about the “Information Superhighway” and even a discussion of whether the Internet could be that highway. Even after I finished my college degree in 1994 and quit the Postal Service in June of that year, there was little doubt among the Postal Service’s managers that this online thing was just a fad that would go away, and the Postal Service would end up at the top of the scrum.

This conviction extended to the bottom of the system as well, and people constantly reminded each other that past “financial crises” had gone away, and we had all gotten nice pay raises and cost-of-living increases, as well as contractual bonuses in arbitration anyway. The public might gripe and complain, but they’d never abandon the Postal Service’s services for the uncertain online world.

In the early 1990s, there had been another of those postal financial crises and there was much talk of cutting back on management and administration. “The people who don’t touch the mail” were never as big in number as the workers thought, but the word began to be that they would be cut back. However, while a few acting managers might be temporarily demoted to craft work, they inevitably went back to management, and more management and administrative jobs at all levels were created and eventually posted.

Top brass would announce that “change takes time” and most seemed to hope to score their pensions before they had to do anything to make that change real.

Just before I quit the Postal Service, I attended a career awareness conference and saw part of the reason the Postal Service was in the state it was in. The event was run by about a hundred people, all or mostly rural letter carriers, and all on some sort of injury compensation and light duty. Their work had to be made up by others, while they spent their workdays making photocopies, writing reports and generally looking busy in the Equal Employment Opportunity offices then present in virtually every postal installation.

It disgusted me, and the conviction expressed that god wouldn’t let anything bad happen to the Postal Service proved to me that these people were deluded. I decided I didn’t have a future in the Postal Service and moved on.

The future
Sad to say, the Postal Service is facing a date with destiny, and it’s not pretty. Financially, as people transact more and more business online, revenue will fall and so will service. Saturday delivery is probably going to be the first to go, and more consolidation of facilities is probably on the horizon, too, despite the ongoing battles to save facilities.

Through attrition and retirements, the Postal Service can unload most of its work force and use more technology to get the job done.

Two of the biggest mailing periods are, I hear, no more. I remember the mad Christmas rushes, usually starting with Thanksgiving and ending a couple of weeks into January, when the place just seemed piled up with mail.

I worked in the letter cancelling operation for the first half of my shift and setting up, loading into the system and sorting first-class and priority packages in the second half (the former was called the 010; the latter was on the teepee).

It was a good feeling to work unsupervised and efficiently in the latter job, and I was a master at sorting on the teepee not only packages but magazine bundles. There was something so wonderful about that last work night before Christmas, sending off the packages to the post offices where they’d be delivered, and knowing I’d work on Christmas Day for the triple time pay and get my days off later in the week.

Busy but not as crazy was tax time. On the night of April 15 (unless it fell on a Saturday or Sunday, and then it was another day) people would drive up and drop off their tax returns, some of them doing their taxes in the post office lobby. We’d cancel their envelopes and send them to Atlanta. That rush began about two weeks before tax day and died about two weeks later.

Those days are gone. Most folks still send Christmas cards – but not as many – and packages, but most tax forms are filed electronically.

The technology has changed, and so much the Postal Service. This time, there’s no bailout or rescue.

Closing troubles
A big problem the “Stasis Service” has faced is closing certain centers, especially cancelling centers.

Back when I was a reporter for The Bradenton Times, the issue came up when part of the postal facility at Tallevast on the Sarasota-Manatee county border was up for changes. Basically, the Postal Service wanted to send mail cancelling – the 010 – up to Tampa. Employees would get transfers to Tampa and would have to commute, but would still have jobs.

One issue raised by the postal union was that the loss of the postmark would be a blow to the area. That’s an issue that’s often raised, though to be honest I really wonder who cares where their mail is postmarked or what the postmark reads. We almost never see our envelopes after they are processed through the postal system.

Focusing on symbolism or “sense of community” surrounding postmarks will keep the Postal Service from saving itself – unless that’s the goal of the unions.

The road ahead for the Postal Service is rough. There is still a need for some paper mail – I, for one, still get a lot of bills and magazines through the mail – and more addresses are coming on line. People expect good service, and expect it delivered regardless of the Postal Service’s financial issues.

Can the Postal Service deliver amid its fiscal woes? That’s the open question right now.

January 28, 2011 Posted by | Living in the modern age | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

The worst day ever at a car dealership

It was one of those days when nothing went right, save that a final decision was made that changed my life for the better.

My 1985 Plymouth Reliant was not a lemon, per se, but it did have recurring problems like alternators that went bad every 15,000 miles and a major carburetor screw-up at around 25,000. In fact, I eventually traded it in for a 1987 Pontiac Firebird that was one of the best cars I ever owned.

It was 1986, probably in the summer. I had moved to Florida for a job with the Postal Service and was living in West Palm Beach. The Reliant’s steering started to make a funny noise, so I decided to take it to the dealer to have it checked out.

Florida Chrysler-Plymouth was just off I-95 on Okeechobee Boulevard in West Palm Beach. That area was full of car dealers. In fact, in October 1999, I bought my 2000 Oldsmobile Alero (another excellent car, by the way) at Schumacher Buick-Oldsmobile further west on Okeechobee.

I should have known things were not going to be good that day when I arrived at the dealership and described the problem. The service manager was told that there were around 80 cars still awaiting service and repairs. It might be awhile.

With several compadres in the very lousy service waiting room, I sat and we compared stories. There was the retired couple who, that past weekend, had taken home a nice, new Chrysler Fifth Avenue. Unfortunately for them, the engine was leaking oil. All they wanted was for someone to look at it, but the service department was adamant: to the back of the line!

We sat and groused, and for a break me and another guy walked into an area where you could watch the mechanics at work. Most of them were not working on cars, though there was a Plymouth Horizon sitting in one service bay with its engine running, and the battery was smoking. We decided to inform the service manager that there was a fire hazard, and it was dealt with.

But the incident that led to my final decision to never give Chrysler a cent of my hard-earned money was the treatment meted out to a family that had been heading to Miami in their Plymouth Voyager. The vehicle had broken down on I-95 just north of West Palm Beach, and they had the tow truck driver take them to the nearest Chrysler-Plymouth dealership, thinking they’d get a quick fix and be back on the road.

Well, they were informed that it might be a few days before the service department got to the vehicle, and their pleas for consideration fell on deaf ears.

In those days, Chrysler Corporation and Lee Iacocca were big into the supposed high reliability of the company’s cars – something nearly every Chrysler-Plymouth-Dodge owner knew was bullshit – and how you’d be treated well at the dealers. In fact, the big company had little control over the dealers and it was a sad reality that the bad treatment redounded to the disadvantage of Chrysler.

Maybe the service department was overwhelmed with the number of cars needing service, but that is still no excuse for the mistreatment.

I finally got my car back, late in the day, and the steering problem was fixed but the steering wheel was way off-kilter. The straight ahead position had the wheel looking like I was in a deep left turn. I brought it back and complained, but was basically told: too bad.

My letter to Chrysler complaining of the service and the dealership got me back a form letter about how everyone at the company was dedicated to good customer service. The only option left was to vote with my feet, and I did. In 1987, I traded in the Reliant – on which I still owed money – for a Firebird, and never looked back.

Unfortunately for Chrysler, those bad memories remain. I cannot in good conscience even consider their products. People have long memories, and they remember how awful the experience was. Of course the folks who work on the assembly line are paying a heavy price, but it’s like that in a lot of industries. Others are reaping the benefits of past success, though, like the top executives, who never have had to deal with the service department of a dealership.

Auto executives often wonder why people hold such long-standing grudges against a certain make of a car. After being mistreated at a dealership, the last thing anyone wants is to go back for more.

August 13, 2010 Posted by | Life lessons, Living in the modern age | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment