Postal System Strives to Handle Its Ups and Downs : Coping: Workers struggling with spate of suicides and a shooting spree now face new stress: automation and the fear of job loss.
On the morning of Aug. 10, 1989, John Merlin Taylor, a 52-year-old letter carrier, killed his wife, then drove to the Orange Glen postal station in Escondido, half a mile from his home, and killed two of his closest friends with a .22-caliber semi-automatic pistol. Then he turned the gun on himself.
The sensational case brought into public view a grim pattern: it was the fifth suicide by a San Diego County postal employee within eight months.
It also set off a storm of investigation and reform to reduce worker stress caused, the employees said, by heavy workloads, harsh time constraints and management insensitivity.
But today, two years after Taylor’s rampage, a union official says that one of the key reforms instituted in 1991--automation--is causing some stress problems of its own.
Tom Wood, president of Local 197 of the American Postal Workers Union, said this week that “the jury is still out on automation,” more for emotional, than technical, reasons.
He conceded that automation has helped ease the drudgery of postal work, a source of much discontent in the past, but he said it has employees “worried sick” about layoffs and involuntary reassignments, even out of the area.
No one, including Wood, denies that automation has helped, especially by relieving workers of the most tedious part of their jobs. In addition, there is general agreement that, overall, the morale of postal workers in the county--once rated among the three worst in the nation--has improved.
In the two years since the killings, postal operations have changed dramatically in San Diego County. A congressional inquiry, conducted in San Diego in December, 1989, cast an eye on the crisis and on county Postmaster Margaret Sellers.
The panel reached no formal conclusion but criticized Sellers for not being more responsive to the needs--and suggestions--of workers.
Debbie Kendall, staff director for the House subcommittee on postal operations and services, said this week that, at that time, postal problems in San Diego County were among the worst in the nation, matched only by Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.
Kendall, an aide to Rep. Frank McCloskey (D-Ind.), who chaired the inquiry, said from Washington: “We continue to follow up and have found that, on the whole, things have really quieted down. Management is more in tune with workers and stress in the workplace. A bad situation did get better.”
It was the county’s “phenomenal growth” and the discontent of “stressed-out” employees that led postal officials to use San Diego as “a kind of test case for a lot of (automated) equipment,” Kendall said.
But, with the reduction in work, comes fears of reduction in work force.
“People are nervous,” Wood said. “Any kind of a change, but certainly, an involuntary change in a worker’s lifestyle causes problems. Some people get over such things in a week. Others, it takes two years or more.
“But, when the postmaster general says he wouldn’t be opposed to layoffs, the rumors start flying,” Wood said in reference to Postmaster General Anthony M. Frank.
Kendall, the aide to Rep. McCloskey, said the talk is more than just rumors.
“So far, we’ve had no layoffs, but believe me, they’re coming,” she said. “They’ll probably start in the Northeast, which has the most workers, but San Diego County will be affected in the future. It’s difficult to say it wouldn’t be. It will happen systemwide.”
Kendall said automation has brought about the multiple-line character reader, which “can put mail in, run it through and read the address. It then sprays on a (computer) bar code for the nine-digit ZIP code.
“It’s separated into bins and forwarded to the carrier. It sorts a lot more mail per hour than manual methods ever did.”
Automation has reduced the time letter carriers have to spend at the post office sorting mail--a major complaint in the past--and gives them more time on the route, delivering mail. And, partly because of the Taylor tragedy, nowhere is it in greater use than in San Diego County.
In addition, Kendall said, focus groups and seminars, the use of clinical psychologists and psychiatrists (particularly in Escondido) and wholesale route adjustments have helped heal the wounds in San Diego County and elsewhere.
National attention was first focused on the plight of postal workers five years ago, when a part-time mailman killed 14 people and wounded six others in an Edmund, Okla., post office.
“Step 3" grievances, considered the most serious complaints brought by the union against the postal service, have dropped by 19% in two years, both locally and across the country, postal officials say.
Glen Roberts, a supervisor in the Escondido post office and a friend of Taylor’s who was working when the bullets started flying, said psychologists and employee assistance programs have helped co-workers cope with tragedy.
Roberts said morale and working conditions have improved, and, despite the fears of employees, automation has been a positive influence. He said the postal service is doing a better job of coping with the growth of the county, which many cite as the system’s nemesis.
Wood, the union official, has a different view.
“I see a lot of problems,” he said. “Have conditions improved? Not that I can see. We recently got a raise, but not a big raise. And automation has just put this big, crazy spin on everything.
“For a long time here, we were just in the Dark Ages. We didn’t get mechanical (in San Diego County) until 1975, when we finally got letter-sorting machines. And now we’re doing automation all at once.
“Don’t get me wrong. It has its advantages. Instead of having workers sort 60 letters a minute, the automated equipment can do it faster than the eye can see. But people get upset when they have to do something different, when they’re displaced.”
Wood said he is 99.9% sure that layoffs won’t affect county postal workers, but not for altruistic reasons.
“Sellers must be one of the most successful postmasters in the country--it’s why she’s survived,” Wood said. “I’m not patting her on the head. . . . What I mean is, she’s cut the staff to the bone--always has. I can’t see where there’s much room to cut. Who, in other words, would be laid off?”
Nevertheless, automation has Wood and others worried that postal officials might one day “farm out a lot of work to outside sources, who wouldn’t be paid the $14 an hour that we are. Maybe they would work for $6 an hour.”
Such subcontracting alternatives are now being tried in Nassau, N.Y., and Louisville, Ky., said Wood. “And, from what I hear, the results haven’t been good. The postal service isn’t happy. So maybe there’s hope for us yet,” he added.
Mike Cannone, a spokesman for Sellers, said growth in the county has tapered off and that, in turn, has eased the burden. He said employees are now “more involved in decision-making, and, as a result, morale has improved.”
He even said that several key supervisors, who, as retired military officers were used to a rigid command structure, have retired, and that, too, has made a difference in morale. But Sellers, now in her early 60s, has no plans for retirement, Cannone said.