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
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.
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
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
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
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!
Comments on this page