Thursday, December 22, 2011

My days at the USPS (Jan. 9, 2009)

Current mood: hopeful

In the six weeks I worked at the United States Postal Service facility in Cranberry Twp, outside Pittsburgh, I composed a dozen blogs in my head, but when I got home, was too burnt or busy to sit down even once to type it. Today marks the end of my days as a Mail Handler, a very brief interregnum before I head off to work in a position that many would envy, one requiring my long experience in Software Configuration Management as well as my Masters degree. Not to brag, but “whew!” Jobs like this are fast disappearing.

Being a mail handler meant I needed no real skills beyond a strong back, knowing how to lift big or heavy items safely, following directions and getting along with people. Most of the work was repetitive, such as building boxes, sorting packages (by the first one or three digits of the Zip Code®), loading or unloading trailers, moving equipment around, and putting items on or taking items off conveyor belts. No college degree necessary; I’m not sure that a high school diploma was necessary. Being drug free and not convicted of anything was apparently good enough.

I could tell, though, that, once in, some people made the grade and some did not. One guy quit after a week because the work was too difficult. Two others were let go as soon as the rush subsided because … why? I’m not certain. One just didn’t move fast. The other spent half his time grousing about the work, the world, whatever. He never had a pleasant thing to say about anything or to anybody, and he never shut up. A fourth left on her own, but I think that was her plan from the start, just to make a few bucks for the holidays and get out. They apparently liked the rest of us, including me, as we were authorized to stay on beyond the original end date.

I myself was only in it for the money, a straight $12/hour, no benefits. Every blessed cent went to paying down my family’s enormous debt, much of it amassed from trying to feed ourselves in those first couple of years when I was out of work, and a lot more of it left over from paying for my tuition 10 years ago. The overhead was killing us. But with Sarah working 50-hour weeks the last few months and me busting my buns six days a week, we’ve finally made a serious dent in that debt, and for that I am grateful. Kids, that’s our Christmas present to you. 

Maybe in 2009 we can finally have a life. Even so, it would take six more months at the recent rate of income to get rid of the debt altogether, let alone pay for many, many long-delayed major expenses, from dental work to an unusable fireplace dating from 1998, to replacing a10-year-old car with over 140K miles on it. Not to mention current and future college tuition, costing a large fraction of $10K every three months for the next eight years.

But back to the USPS. In no way can I recall all of what I wanted to write the past six weeks, nor would you want to read it all even if I could, but I will summarize a few key highlights.
  • Bad packaging. Each day, I was amazed how many packages were busted open in shipment, or which rattled with the unmistakable sound of shattered glass. So many plastic wrapped bundles of magazines and catalogs burst open, or lost their address labels, or were simply torn to shreds, that I wondered why they even bothered to mail them in the first place. Every package should be capable of surviving a tumble down a 20-step staircase and being stood on by a 10-year-old child of normal weight, because the equivalent is almost certainly going to happen to it. I purchase valuable and fragile 78 rpm records through the U.S. Mail, and they arrive intact, so it can be done.
  • Keeping one’s chin up. Most times, things work well, teams of people work together, and there is no need for nasty thoughts, let alone nasty language. Sometimes, though, things go awry. Fasteners cannot be opened, throws of packages land in the wrong container, locked wheels cannot be unlocked, trays get dropped, objects and occasionally people collide, freezing cold trucks must be unloaded, and innumerable other frustrations occur with mind-numbing regularity. You cannot let it get to you. I know I won the admiration of one dock supervisor when, in the last half hour of a 12-hour shift, I was as cheerful as I was when I walked in, willing and able to load that truck with one-ton pallets and rolling stock without delay or complaint. You learn how, or you go crazy.
  • Following directions. No thought was necessary to do this job. I did exactly what they told us. If I had to think, either I was doing something wrong or something unnecessary. If something seemed wrong, it probably was. If something didn’t make sense to me, it probably didn’t make sense to anyone else either, so I asked. It may seem stupid to state, but in almost every case, previous instructions applied, i.e., we were doing a task we’d done many times before, so didn’t need repeat explanation.
  • Making suggestions. Situations best prefixed with the question, “Shouldn’t we be able to do ‘X’?” were usually answered with one of two answers: (a) “No, because …” or (b) “Sure! Great idea!” I was sure to search the memory bank before asking, though, because “(a)” answers were far more common than “(b)”, so to ask was to make yourself look stupid, or worse.
All in all, though, I will remember this job with fond memories. The very act of showing up on time every day brought me a sense of purpose I wished I could fulfill, especially after having not worked for so long. Hopefully the folks at Union Switch and Signal will continue to inspire me to do my best, just as the USPS has.

1 comment:

deliverytoeurope said...

really good post - there is so much that goes into packaging and delivery, especially Europe delivery that people just don't realise how secure their goods need to be wrapped and packed.