Questions about typical work day of American mail carriers

I want to make a character in a story be a mail carrier, and I need some help.

If anyone here is or was a mail carrier, can you tell me how a typical work day goes?

Like, what time do you start, how much sorting do you have to do, when do you start your route, how many houses you deliver to, how long does it take to do the route, what (if anything) do you do after that?

We all hear stories/jokes about mailmen and dogs – is that genuinely a common problem? What other hassles do you run into all the time? Do your, um, patrons? do things that drive you crazy or have you tell other carriers ‘You’ll never believe this one’ afterwards?

I assume you get breaks for lunch and coffee and bathroom and all – do you go back to the Post Office for those?

Are there special rules about things you can or can’t do that wouldn’t be commonly known?

Any ‘neat’ little trade secrets, things that happen people don’t generally know about? The kind of things you come across in stories that make you think “I never knew that” but which make sense once you hear of them?

Thanks for any help!

Ah, where to start?
I carried for 21 years in a small town in Ohio, originally with four routes, now with four routes and an auxilliary route of between 4 and 6 hours.
We started work at 7:30, which is a little later than most larger offices because most of our mail was sorted to the office level (and later to the route level) at another location.
It took around 2 to 2 1/2 hours for us to sort our mail into delivery sequence. That’s done by puting it in something called a “case”…think of a 5-shelf bookcase with a division for each address, in delivery order. We were expected to maintain “standard” which is sorting at least 18 letters or 8 flats (magazines, etc) per minute. Some mail is hard to handle, so maintaining standard isn’t always easy.
Parcels are all thrown into a big canvas tub on wheels called a bin. You’re supposed to just wheel the bin out to your truck and put them into some sort of order when you load, but most carriers do a little pre-sorting.
Office time is the most stressful because management is always right there telling you how slow and lazy you are, and towards the end of my carreer they had lots of computer-generated estimates of how long it should take you to do everything. The reports all came from hundreds of miles away and didn’t take into account anything that might legitimately slow you down. There were also daily arguments with the supervisor about how much of the auxilliary route you should carry in addition to your own.

The street part of the route was the best. It IS physically demanding. I had a daily walk of 8 to 12 miles a day depending on the route configuration, which changed many times in my 21 year. Your sack can weigh as much as 40 pounds when fully loaded at the beginning of a relay (most routes have something like 20 relays) and weather is often unpleasant. Midwestern summer heat and humidity can be brutal and it wasn’t uncommon for carriers to approach heat exhaustion on bad days. The first sign was coming down off a porch and not being sure which way to turn for your next delivery. Rain is uncomfortable and you tend to get as wet from sweat inside a raincoat as you would without one, so we often just worked in shirtsleeves through all but the worst storms.
Winter is just nasty. Sidewalks are seldom shoveled anymore (except by old ladies) so walking is hard. You don’t get any more time for bad conditions, either. Handling mail with gloves is a skill that takes time to learn.
Most people are very nice to their mailman. I think there may have been maybe five who I didn’t like in all my years on the route. I’m a small, scrawny guy, so lots of them fed me thru the day, lol. I spent 18 years on the same route so I sow many kids grow up and marry, saw many customers age and die. People tended to confide in me, sorta like a priest or a bartender, and I always honored their trust. You tend to know a lot of intimate details about people’s lives thru the mail you deliver to them…medical problems, fertility problems, relationship problems, hobbies, financial stuff, just from what you see on the outside of the mail. I always considered that confidential and never shared it with anyone.
I saw several women naked over the years, and one man.
Several women had crushes on me, lol.
People often asked for help with household chores, like putting up storm windows or holding a ladder or handing them a tool while they were working on something.
By contract we were entitled to 2 10 minute breaks and a 30 minute lunch, which took place on the route. Sometimes, when the mail was heavy and management especially obnoxious, we would skip those. Since we were not paid for our 30 minute lunch we were free to go wherever we could get back from in 30 minutes, but couldn’t use the truck to get there. Sometimes my wife or a friend would meet me at my lunch stop and take me to Subway or someplace.
Usually there’s no time left when you return to the office, you put your gear away, get cleared of your accountables (certified, registered or insured items, COD’s and so forth) and go.
There’s a lot more mail than the average civillian would ever imagine. And they just keep making more, lol.
You have a tremendous feeling of brotherhood with the other carriers since you all suffer through the same things.

Okay, way too long but not nearly all of it. If there’s something else I can tell you, just ask.

Oh…bathroom breaks.
You’re entitled to “reasonable comfort stops”. Usually you can find a business or a gas station to use, or in an emergency a friendly customer will let you use their bathroom.
A large, wide mouth Gatorade jar can also be your best friend in the winter, lol.
The only carriers who use the office for this are the ones whos routes take them past at the appropriate time.

Oh, great stuff! Thank you, Sky King!

I was amazed that you couldn’t use your truck to go get a burger or whatever. Okay, you’d burn a little gas, but how much could it amount to in a half hour slot? Very stingy of the Feds.

If your route happened to take you directly past a sandwich shop, could you stop long enough to buy your lunch to go? Or was it strictly brown bagging when you didn’t have an accomodating wife/friends?
Since you offered, a couple more questions. :slight_smile:

I’m really interested in the dog thing. See, I need there to be some daily hassle that makes my guy dread a particular part of his route. I was thinking bad dog, but is there some other recurring hassle? Perhaps some house could be on its own hill and there be lots and lots of steps up to it? Too narrow or steep or slippery or something?

In my town, starting maybe a decade ago newly built houses have to have a mailbox at the street. Older houses get to the door delivery, I guess we’re grandfathered. I’m guessing a route with mainly street boxes is much easier from a physical effort standard. Would a route like that be considered especially desirable? ‘Fought’ over? Reserved for the oldest mailman?

How about picking up outgoing mail? Personally speaking, it’s really handy for me to put the letters out, but it must add to the burden you carry and be more stuff to keep track of. Do you resent it when customers do that (even just a tiny bit?) or is it so common you really don’t care?

Do you carry a cell phone?

Christmas: do you get a lot of presents from customers? Just money, or do you get stuff like, oh, boxes of homemade cookies, fruit cakes, booze? I think you’re allowed to keep stuff like that (at least, the only rule I found on the PO web site once was about keeping it under $20 in value) but do you? Or is it, dang, another batch of cookies, and into the nearest trash barrel?

What was the strangest/biggest/most interesting present you ever got?

What presents did you most like?

What didn’t you get that you would really have appreciated?
And, I think that’s all my questions. At least for now. :wink:

Thanks again!

Technically, your truck was supposed to be parked at your designated lunch stop for the entire 30 minutes. I occasionally used a Dairy Queen drive-thru about a half block off the route, but it was mostly the previous evenings’s leftovers in a lunchbox.
I forgot to mention Managed Service Points…Which we called Management Spy Points. There were barcodes on between six and twelve boxes on your route, including just before and just after lunch, which had to be scanned to keep track of your progress. you were supposed to be there the same time every day, regardless of mail volume or weather conditions. Just another way of telling us we couldn’t be trusted to do a good job on our own.

Dogs are highly individual…some take a dislike to a particular carrier, often the sub, and are fine with the regular. Some are just nasty and will even come over (or under) a fence to get to you. I had one break a window trying to get at me and I was only saved by the screen! Little ones are sneaky and hide in the bushes, but most of them can’t do much but untie your shoes. It’s been suggested that some of the animosity comes from being house trained by being swatted with a rolled up newspaper and the bundle of mail in your hand reminds them of that. They’re very territorial and seldom cause a problem if they’re just running at large, they’re only defensive at home.
One dog lesson you learn early is to never put your fingers through a mail slot…dogs often bite anything that comes through and you don’t want it to be your hand! It’s sometimes amusing to feed a check thru and hear it being shredded, lol.

Yes, there are places you dislike delivering to…up a long flight of rickety steps, up a hill, bad sidewalks, dog dirt in in the yard, nasty sharp-edged too small mailboxes, small door slots at address that got a lot of mail,that sort of thing.
I delivered in very hilly country, so there were some long uphill trudges that were tough at the end of the day, especially after I turned 50.
New neighborhoods are now set up for curbline delivery, or even cluster boxes. This isn’t to make it easier for the carriers, its quicker (if less convenient for the customer) so more deliveries can be put on a route. Oh, by the way, my route was about 535 deliveries most of the time which is a little above average as far as I know) And yes, old delivery points are grandfathered in, it takes a bit of doing to change them.
Routes are bid on by seniority. There are lots of things that make one more desirable than others, including mail volume, terrain, nature of the neighborhoods and in some cases days off. At my office, the day off went with the route and I had Thursdays off for about 18 years.
Other offices use a rotating day-off schedule.
I never resented picking up outgoing mail, but some guys did. The official rule is that we have to take it if we had a delivery for that address that day, but I would always go get it if I could see it. I knew that when I had something to send I wanted it gone as soon as possible. Outgoing packages could be a problem, but the last couple of years of my carreer there was a program where customers (like big ebay sellers) could notify us in advance by e mail so we’d be expecting it.
Cell phones didn’t become common until the last few years that I carried. I never let management know I had one because they were in the habit of asking guys to call in to let them know where they were on the route so they could maybe bring them another relay or ask them to do a collection or something.
Yes, we got Christmas gifts and until about 10 years ago anything over token value was prohibited. We got the “ethics” talk every year about the beginning of November and we forgot it immediately. Tips were all over the place, depending on the customer’s circumstances. I recieved tips as low as $2 and as high as $40. My best neighborhood, tip-wise, was made up of retired working-class black people. They seemed to appreciate someone working for them and being kind and pleasant.
Gifts included cookies, candy, fudge, socks, whiskey (bottle or shot), wine, beer (one old guy would invite me into his basement and load up my sack with as many beers as it would hold, lol) about a billion coffee mugs, a scarf and a couple of hugs and kisses. Some really good had lotion from an operating room nurse who understood about chapped hands. This sounds corny, but the best gift was a middle aged lady who smiled at me and said “Thank you for being such a wonderful mailman!” Really.
Now I believe there is a $20 limit on gratuities, but it’s pretty much ignored. Some people gift you in person, like you’d tip a bellman, but most put it in a card marked “mailman” or with your name on it. You never open them til you get home.
Everything was appreciated as a token of thanks, but there is a limit to how many cookis you can eat. Often you’d put them on the table in the swing (break) room to share with the clerks who didn’t get that kind of stuff.
Every carrier is different, but most of us, especially the ones who had the same route for a long time, thought of our customers as friends and family. That was the best part of the experience, and the part that made retirement emotionally wrenching. To be honest, I’d still be doing it now (I’m 58) if I could take management, but you can take just so much of working your butt off and being told how lazy and ineficient you are.

Sky King, if I may ask solely out of curiosity - when you were a carrier were you officially a government employee? I know that the postal service is sort-of privatized and sort-of governmental, but I’ve never quite been clear on that. If so, what’s the average GS rating of a mail carrier?

Postal employees were under Civil Service until a few years before I started in late 1984. We didn’t have GS level ratings and we paid into Social Security rather than Civil Service retirement. Our paychecks came from the US Treasury. I guess we were employees of the federal government.
There are several levels and steps (or steps and levels, I forget, lol) in the carrier craft, mostly having to do with pay rate and annual leave accumulation. It takes about 15 years to get to the top level as a regular carrier, which is Level 5. There is also a Level 6 in some offices, which is a regular carrier who delivers a group of 5 routes on the regular days off. Offices with fewer than 5 full routes us subs (Part Time Flexible Carriers) to do this job. Subs are carreer employees who get full benefits but have no fixed schedule or garauntee of anymore than 4 hours per week, but make a higher hourly rate.

My sister’s long term boyfriend has been a mail carrier for over 30 years. A visit to their house just before Christmas will mean you leave with a couple bottles of booze. He gets 4 or 5 dozen bottles a year.

The U.S. Postal Service is not a federal agency. It’s a government-owned corporation. So they aren’t “feds.”

Yeah, they told us we were a “quasi-governmental organization”, whatever that means!

I’ve been carrying mail for two years in a suburban post office with 40-odd routes. Our office for the most part has competent supervisors and a fairly respectful, non-adversarial worker/management culture, for which I feel extremely lucky. There are thousands of post offices organized into dozens of management regions and others may have very different practices.

Each of our routes has one assigned lunch spot you’re allowed to drive to, generally a fast food spot or a mini-mart agreed upon by management and the regular carrier on the route, in a few cases that carrier’s house. Your drive time to and from comes out of your 30 minutes. You also have the option of just parking your truck for 30 minutes and brown bagging.

I’ve been told by my union steward (and I didn’t bother trying to verify with a supervisor) that if I’m driving from one park point to another and I pass a yard sale, and I have a 10-minute break coming, there’s no problem parking there, browsing and buying stuff - just don’t go over ten minutes.

However, your route has an assigned line of travel from the office to your first delivery or park point all the way through lunch, to whatever gas station you’re supposed to fill up at, and back to the office. You report your odometer reading every day. Getting caught varying from your line of travel without a valid reason (e.g. to make an express delivery before noon) is supoposed to be trouble, but some of our carriers seem to do it very casually.

Walking is harder and less desired. Curbline is easier, and cluster boxes, as Sky King mentioned - big metal cabinets with 16 or so individual mail boxes in them, at apartment complexes and condos - are in between. Many routes are some mix of the three. And then there are businesses, which may be walking or curbline delivery. Some carriers like businesses, some don’t.

Porch-type mailboxes vary greatly in design. Some make picking up outgoing letters slightly annoying. A walking carrier has a stack of letters in his left hand and a stack of flats - magazines, catalogs, large envelopes - balanced on his left forearm. From these stacks he pulls off the next house’s mail during the walk from the last house, and should have it all between his right thumb and index finger by the time he gets to the next box. So he has to fish out your letters with
his middle, ring, and/or index fingers.

But then you stuff them in your bag and forget about them. You need to not lose them. But you don’t keep track of them. You just get back to the truck, dump the lot into your tub of collected outgoing mail, and carry on.

Again, my thanks to you, Sky King.

Also to MrWhatsit for the additional info.

I think I have all I need for my story, but the additional remarks have been very interesting. Maybe we could morph this thread into a “Ask the Mail Carrier”? :slight_smile:

One really old story. I delivered mail as a sub the summer of 1970. They didn’t let me sort, which was good, because it would have taken me 6 hours. I was put on a variety of routes in our post office, which was in southeastern Queens, NY. It was all suburban, but with a range of living standards - on some routes I delivered a lot of welfare checks. Back then we didn’t have vans - I either had a cart or a shoulder bag. Since no one could carry everything, there were relay boxes on the route - green boxes, no mail slot, for which you had the key.

One particularly bad route had a lot of steps up to the mailbox for a lot of houses, and no way to cross from one to another. I was 19 at the time, and it was still a pain.
For dogs - we carried doggie mace, and I used it twice. The worst was a nasty dog who looked identical to a nice dog around the corner, and who lunged at me, and ripped my pants leg, just missing me. Of course the owners came running out to tell me what a nice dog he was. One guy at our office was badly bitten that summer.
You got spied on - at least I did. I got a report on how well I did. This was long before bar codes.

The pay was great for a summer job, and I liked being outside. I got trained by a senior guy, with the easiest route. He started the day with breakfast, and, always getting done early, ended it in a bar. But people did get their mail.

I don’t think the USPS pays company tax so it’s not really a normal corporation. It also has a socialist style monopoly on delivering letters (or anything else) to mailboxes.

The only other postal service I know anything about, New Zealand Post, is also a “state owned enterprise” as we call it but that pretty much just means that the government is the only shareholder. They could never quite bring themselves to sell it. NZ Post is a normal commercial operation who pays tax and has to compete with other companies who can deliver letters to mailboxes. In NZ you don’t break the law if you leave something for a friend in their mailbox.

Competition in mail delivery also means a lot less junk mail.

I’d be glad to answer any questions in an “Ask the Mailman” thread. It’s always interesting to me how different many jobs are from the perception I had of them before reading threads like that.
Regarding the monopoly…the USPS only has a monopoly on First Class letters, delivered to the mailbox. Other companies may deliver urgent mail (various forms of “Next Day”, parcels (like UPS and FedEx) and advertising (like those bags of coupons/ads and such you sometimes see hanging on doorknobs). The phone company also sometimes hires people to deliver phone books, too. You know when they’ve done that by the number of books you see lying in front yards and on porches, it means the lady with the baby stroller full of books has been by, lol.
Mr Whatsit is right, the culture varies a lot from office to office and region to region. There are some good managers, there are some easy routes, there are some lazy carriers…it’s just like any other business in that respect.

Government-mandated monopolies have existed as long as corporations have existed, and have nothing to do with socialism.

And the corporate tax issue aside, postal workers are not agents of the U.S. government, so it’s incorrect to call them “feds.”