The Piece Work Trap
by John Dziubek former CTRLCA State Steward (written sometime after the Wells arbitration)
Since 1896 rural letter carriers have been paid by an evaluated type system. After the wildcat postal strike in 1970, some very important things changed for postal workers. First the Post Office Department, which was a branch of the federal government, was transformed into the United States Postal Service, an independent corporation. Secondly and more importantly to the paychecks of rural carriers, in May of 1974 an act of Congress placed all postal employees under the provisions of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), however it was soon discovered that the entire rural carrier pay system was incompatible with the FLSA.
According to Lester Miller, past NRLCA President (100 Years of Rural Free Delivery): “The solution relied upon the Section 7(b)2 of the FLSA. This section provided for the use of an annual limitation of 2,080 actual hours worked instead of the usual 40-hour per week limitation to comply with the standards. The key to the solution was that the annual limitation of 2,080 was based upon actual hours worked and not upon paid hours. Taking into account the holidays and the use of sick and annual leave which a carrier would likely use during the year, most carriers could confine their actual work hours to the 2,080-hour requirement to comply with the FLSA and still be able to carry a 46-hour evaluated route, provided the carrier was able to keep within the normal time standards. Actually many carriers have been able to comply with the requirements even on a 48-hour evaluated route by working below the time standards.” This agreement provided the basis for our current evaluated pay system.
In actuality the evaluated system is nothing more than a piecework system. Obviously rural carriers don’t work on a long assembly line in a huge factory. But our “evaluated” pay system is based on the same principal. When mail count time comes your manager inspects the routes for boxes, stops, and mileage. You then receive a certain time factor, regardless of road and weather conditions. Your manager counts and times everything you do. You are given so much credit per letter, flat, parcel, etc. and anything else is measured with a stopwatch right down to the second. In other words, your salary is based on casing and delivering so many pieces of mail. Carriers are paid at a set rate for the route, whether they can complete their work in the allotted amount of time or not. If they can’t, they work additional hours without compensation. No consideration is given for a worker’s age, health or disabilities. The only difference between what we do and what is done on an assembly line is that our work is more difficult, and we have to work outside in all types of weather.
I have been a rural carrier since 1980 and during that entire period everyone from managers to other craft employees envied rural carriers for the simple fact that on some days we got to go home early. That was our incentive. But wait, during arbitration for our new contract the postal service informed the arbitrator that we are not on the incentive system. The fact that some of us go home early was used to convince arbitrator Wells that the time standards do not equate to a fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay. With the new contract standards and the count period have changed. In other words speed up the assembly line, because whether you realize it or not you were just caught in the piece work trap.
Let’s make a little detour through the history of the labor movement in this country. In early American history, the colonial settlers were mainly farmers. In America, the coming of machines was controversial. Workers were forced to work long hours from morning until night in dirty and unsafe mills and factories. Many of these people were paid according to the piece work system.
I recently read a book entitled “A Pictorial History of American Labor” by William Cahn. Inside there were some interesting stories from workers in the early part of the 20th century that apply to the rural carriers of America today.
“The scientifically computed piecework system increasingly made the worker a victim of the machinery he tended. “I think that piece work is a very unjust method of paying workers,” one woman worker said.”
“If we realized how piece work harms us mentally and physically, we might take it a little bit more seriously. Piece work is paid on a plan that is more like guess work than anything else. The employer cannot resist the temptation to cut prices when he sees that we are making more than he thinks we ought to make.”
“Often the employer picks the fastest girl in the place and gives her a certain amount of work to turn out, with a time-study method of ascertaining the time required. When she turns out more than the average worker, and so earns more, the employer usually cuts the prices accordingly. He may cut the rate again and again. And we have to work faster and faster in order to get a living wage.”
One physician commented on the system: “Medically, the piece work system is perhaps the most pernicious thing that could be devised to weaken what, for a better term, might be described as the dynamic efficiency of the nervous system. I am referring, of course, to the unregulated piece work system in which there is no maximum or average amount of work set down to keep the worker from speeding beyond his capacity. The pay that the piece worker obtains for his labor is ingeniously devised, and subject to change in amount, so that he must work at top speed to make it worth while. With the increased efficiency of the pieceworker, the price per piece of work turned out is commonly decreased, so that a greater and increasingly more intense effort is necessary to reach the individual’s maximum reward for his labor. It needs no argument to convince even a sturdy advocate of that new idol, called efficiency, that such methods are bound in the long run, to use up the worker …”
These words were written over 80 years ago, but basically the same thing just happened to rural carriers in 2002. Some of us were beating the time standards, so the standards were raised. This is not the first, nor will it
be the last speedup in the rural carrier piece work system. Remember the bonus collectors receive bonus checks based upon increased productivity, not profits. That means that you and I will deliver to more delivery points with reduced work hours (higher standards) and fewer employees (fewer relief days). Their bonus is assured this year, but what will happen next year. In order to collect it once again they will want more blood from you and me.
Since I started delivering mail for the post office in 1980, there have been three speedups initiated by our employer that affected rural carriers.
The first one was in 1980 with the introduction of the L route. What it did was change the box factor from two minutes per box to 1.64 minutes per regular box for high density routes (12 boxes or more per mile) and .82 for all centralized boxes. In addition, carriers on L routes would have to purchase 150 times the first class rate in order to receive a 5 minute stamp stock purchase credit. While these radical changes affected only a small percentage of the nation’s carriers, it affected the majority of the carriers in Connecticut. I was a sub at that time and it decreased the evaluation of my route by three hours. As a new employee and union member I was impressed by the reaction and the solidarity of the carriers at the Connecticut contract ratification meeting. I am still proud of the fact that Connecticut rural carriers voted NO to this speedup. Unfortunately the contract was ratified, because this new L route concept did not affect the majority of the carriers in the nation. It was eventually hailed as the savior of the rural craft, because our cost was less than city delivery, therefore we were allowed to gain territory. However the carriers branded with an L route classification would be required to handle more mail and deliveries to receive the same wage as a non-L carrier.
As is usually the case, as time went by this speedup became the norm and therefore another speedup came in 1991 with the introduction of sector segment. This was soon replaced with the introduction of DPS mail, with
a new standard of 30 letters per minute for street time only. This was a double whammy. It not only eliminated office casing time, but it eliminated office strapout time. Again this speedup was limited to when and where automation came on line. While automation limited some handing of the mail, the carriers would again have to handle more mail and delivery points in order to maintain the same wage. These two previous speedups pale in comparison to what happened to all rural carriers in 2002. The pattern was set and the postal service knew from past experience it would be easy to squeeze the paychecks of rural carriers once more due to the evaluated system.
Management convinced the arbitrator that the rural pay system is not an incentive system. The overall average showed that rural carriers were getting done early and getting paid for work hours that they did not perform. Based on this fact, the arbitrator raised our standards. The postal service, empowered by this victory, decided they would squeeze the rural paycheck even more by teaching their managers how to create artificial targets, and intimidate and harass employees. This is what being labeled the most cooperative union has gotten us.
The disastrous results of the 2002 mailcount were as follows. Before the count there were 599 K routes, 64 J routes, 58 H routes, and 91 Auxiliary routes in Connecticut. When the dust settled there were 188 K routes, 265 J routes, 267 H routes and 91 Auxiliary routes. Across the state the average carrier saw a 5 hour and 43 minute (11%) decrease in their route’s evaluation. This resulted in a yearly savings of $1,330,418 for the Connecticut District. This also eliminated 16,146 relief days for RCA’s to work and for regulars to rest and produced additional savings for the postal service. How many auxiliary routes do you think will be eliminated?
There is a comparison that management does during the mailcount that people pay little attention to. They compare each route’s standard hours to the time actually used by the carrier during mailcount. In past counts, 73% of the carriers worked under standards. This count provided a significant difference, with only 39% of the carriers working under standards. This means that 61% of the carriers worked actual hours over the standards, therefore the average rural carrier gave one hour and five minutes of free labor to the postal service per week. Collectively this amounts to $974,400 of free labor for the postal service per year. Obviously this was a significant negative change for rural carriers. Who is responsible for this debacle? The evaluated system caused the rural carrier to hustle in order to avoid a 2080 problem and to obtain the highest salary. For some carriers speeding up was not enough and this lead some rural carriers to not record actual work hours or to take shortcuts in the job. This is not unusual from the material I have read on the piecework system and the labor movement in this country, “that high productivity figures are partly the result of effectively forcing workers to work overtime for free”.
Human beings are not robots. This is the flaw of the piecework system that management ignores. Only the youngest and healthiest workers will be able to meet the new time standards, and even they will wear out over time like a piece of machinery, due to long hours of repetitive motion.
As you can see, the supposed benefits of the evaluated system are far outweighed by the negative. Carriers on most routes will work hours they are not compensated for, most of which will be unpaid overtime hours. Relief days for most carriers are a thing of the past, sick leave discipline will increase as the RCA ranks dwindle, and vacation time will be as difficult to obtain as it is in the other crafts.
So why should we be the only employees to be on an evaluated system?
If some of us are still able to beat our standards, the Post Office will only convince a future arbitrator to raise our standards again. It is time to put the evaluated system into the dust bin of history and get a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work, like everyone else. Rural carriers need to be paid hourly.
When the postal service convinced the arbitrator to eliminate the bump that allowed for an exemption to FLSA law in 1974, they in fact made the entire rural carrier pay system incompatible with FLSA. You can be sure as the work hours pile up, and your leave is denied, managers will become panicked over 2080 hours. They will then want to punish you for the problem they have created. Ultimately there will be only one solution and that will be to comply with FLSA law. Rural carriers will have to go on the clock like other postal workers, and be paid overtime for time worked over 40 hours in a week.
The mail handlers recently settled their contract with relatively similar results to ours with one exception. Our raise was picked right out of our pockets with speedups, so in effect we lost money in comparison to the other crafts simply because of the evaluated system. Rest assured the company is not done with their speedups. They will look to get their production numbers up and we are sitting ducks with the evaluated system.
I think you can agree with me that rural carriers work on their own piecework assembly line. Unfortunately we are the only postal workers trapped in this antiquated system. So how do we escape? It will be up to the membership and elected delegates at a future national convention to direct our national officers on a different course. Let’s hope something changes soon for all our sakes..