For over 20 years, my mother woke up for work well before 7 a.m. — usually it was still dark out. When we were still kids, my sister and I woke up with her, arriving at school extra-early so that our mom could make it to the post office on time. She wore black, sensible sneakers — the kind that made it comfortable to be on her feet all day. Sometimes, she’d bring pieces of her job home with her: a white postal tote here, a catalog of clothing she could buy with her postal stipend there. And for me and my sister, Sunday morning trips to the Federal Building and Post Office in Brooklyn were considered adventures, even though they were also just a fact of our lives.
The rituals of being a mail carrier were deeply ingrained in me: five decades of my family have been employed by the USPS. My mother, grandmother, uncle, and aunt each donned the classic two-toned blue uniform, signaling that the communications of thousands of New Yorkers were safe in their hands. Even my childhood best friend’s mother and my hairdresser worked at the USPS. Because of this, I have always felt a pang of emotion every time I pass a postal employee on the street, or even saw one on television. They all reminded me of family.
But in the past few weeks, I feel like my family is hurting. The USPS has been shown on every news outlet for days on end, because it’s under attack. Now, I feel something entirely different when I see the USPS uniform: anger — and sadness. Last week, when Donald Trump admitted to intentionally trying to defund the United States Postal Service as a means of upending mail-in voting during the general election, my fury — and my family’s fear — intensified.
But the reality is, attacks on the USPS aren’t new at all. The agency has been steadily losing billions of dollars every fiscal year since 2006. The problem isn’t only that the post office has had to compete with speedier, privately funded delivery services, like UPS and FedEx, but also that fewer and fewer mailed letters are sent in the digital age. All the while, the USPS has had to maintain the costs of health benefits and pension payments for retirees, the very incentives that made working at the USPS so appealing to members of my family and countless others over the years. But still the USPS has been continued because of how many people still rely upon it.Only now, under the direction of Postmaster General Louis DeJoy, it’s facing a crisis that could upend the entire institution of mail as we know it — which would be a catastrophic blow to working class people of color.
For working class families of color like mine, particularly those who rely heavily on one breadwinner, USPS jobs were a lifeline. This clearly doesn’t matter to Donald Trump, who sees the USPS as just another agency to downsize or dismantle, as if its half a million people employees don’t matter. But maybe to Trump, they don’t matter. After all, as of 2018, 41% of the USPS workforce was Black, Latinx, or Asian, and therefore don’t number among the demographics who voted for him.
My mother was a single parent, and we occasionally had periods where money was tight. During my younger years, she came home exhausted from a long day at work but didn’t even get out of her uniform until my sister and I were fed and bathed. As I grew older, my mom would often recount the daily dramas of her workplace, filling me in on how the higher-ups would often play favorites on who would get ahead. As an adult, I recognize that my mother, like so many other parents, was overworked and underpaid, all the while having to navigate office politics. I can also recognize that appointing Louis DeJoy as the postmaster general means those very practices will continue unabated.
In the years since my mother’s retirement, the problems at the USPS have only gotten worse, with the number of employees continuing to decline and the threat of salary cuts looming. As of 2019, 496,934 people are employed by the USPS, from letter carriers to service clerks to station managers. Of those nearly 500,000 employees, salaries are determined by a system of sliding variables, called pay steps and pay grades. As of February 2020, according to the American Postal Workers Union, the payment range is between $32,788 and $74,988.
But it doesn’t look like it’s the letter carriers and postal service clerks making upwards of $80,000, according to research done by the Houston Chronicle and Payscale: positions like these reap an average of $16-$18 an hour, putting them closer to the beginning or middle of that range. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics confirms this with 2019 statistics, putting the national mean annual wage for carriers at $52,180, and $50,610 for service clerks.
Earning that amount of money is a good place to start when working a government job, but it’s nowhere to stay, especially when a household depends on you. Black people have long made up a majority of postal workers in major cities across the U.S.; they peaked at 53 and 66 percent, respectively, in Chicago and Washington, D.C. in the fifties, and remained one-fifth of the workforce in 2010 at 21%. Even as the number of postal workers have steadily dropped (there are about 250,000 fewer career postal workers now than there were 25 years ago), thanks to increased retirements and a rise in temp employees, Black people and people of color have continued to make up a large percentage of the workforce.
For an agency that’s always had a large Black presence (as of 2018, 23% of the USPS workforce was Black), cuts to funding for the USPS, lack of pay raises and lack of opportunity to earn more money is a direct hit to Black quality of life. Black people already struggle with racism in professional settings; getting no support in a field where they play a significant part is a brutal, life-threatening hit to their wellbeing.
It’s hard not to take Trump’s attacks on the post office personally. But I also worry for all the families across the country employed by the USPS who are stuck worrying about the agency’s uncertain future and their own. That fear is driving me to vote in their, and all of our, best interests come November. And also, mail some letters to my loved ones.
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