"Going Postal"?
Some thoughts about postal workers

I've never worked for the post office, but like many political folks, I do a lot of mailings, I read the postal regs, I deal with postal workers, etc.

It has become accepted mythology in recent years that many postal workers are violent malcontents who regularly go crazy and shoot up post offices and their co-workers. Comedians make jokes about the supposed dangers of the postal service; the Capitol Steps humor group sings a refrain of "I'm going to mail myself a letter... You postal workers don't scare me!"

And the series of highly publicized incidents in the last several years have also led to calls that the Postal Service "tighten up" its hiring process to avoid hiring mentally ill or possibly unbalanced people. This worries me. Watching out for problems is one thing, but adding a lot of scrutiny to the hiring process would be a big mistake.

First, the reality. According to a study published in the CDC's official newsletter Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, postal workers are less at risk of being killed on the job than the average U.S. worker.

Postal worker murder-suicides are national news. Murder-suicides which do not involve postal workers are only local news. This tends to distort the public's impression, to say the least.

The Postal Service employs about 750,000 people. Only a few decades ago, it was an intensely political organization; all postmasters were members of the President's political party, and were expected to hire their political friends to post office jobs. The Postmaster General was also usually the national party chairman; the two jobs were considered two parts of the same role. Every time the party in control of the White House changed, all the old postal workers were swept out and replaced with new ones.

Finally, the decision was made to get politics out of the system. The old political postmasters could keep their jobs, but they were deprived of the power to hire people based on their personal preferences. All hiring was to be, and is, done through competitive exams. All hiring and promotion decisions are made strictly "by the book" with very specific and limited criteria, because it was assumed that any "extra" considerations would be political ones.

The effect of this system is to make it possible for smart people (those who do well on multiple choice exams) to get postal service jobs even if they have facial tics or "difficult" personalities or a history of mental illness or other peculiarities which might interfere with finding other kinds of employment.

Contrary to what you might think, many jobs at the Postal Service require considerable brainpower. Not all pieces have nine digit zip codes; mail sorters have to memorize literally thousands of street names and segments to be able to sort mail into carrier routes with any speed.

Most of the three-quarters-of-a-million folks who work for the Postal Service are ordinary working people with no unusual problems relating to others. But there's also a good sprinkling of those who, were it not for the Postal Service and its peculiar mode of ignoring personality issues in prospective employees, would probably be out on the street, living with their parents, occupying beds in mental institutions, or otherwise not productive.

Many of these people, despite the problems that make them unacceptable in the ordinary labor market, are highly talented and productive workers, capable of doing complex tasks like mail sorting without requiring large salaries. If we fired them all and replaced them with equally capable people with blander personalities and wider options in life, we'd have to pay them more, and the costs of handling America's mail would increase, as would the burden on our mental health system.

We have the best and cheapest mail system in the entire world, in part because we allow thousands of highly skilled people with personality disorders, mental illness, and other problems to do this work. This was done by accident -- but let's not undo it!

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By Lawrence (Larry) Kestenbaum, of Ann Arbor, Michigan, former county commissioner, creator of The Political Graveyard (political history and cemeteries), and Polygon, the Dancing Bear (commentary on politics, history, and life).

Page created, February 17, 1998; latest changes, February 21, 2003