(Not) going postal: Postal workers face an uncertain future in the digital age

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The post office used to be a great place to work: high pay, full benefits and — most importantly — job security.

But that was before a cascade of announcements that the U.S. Postal Service plans to cut costs by closing offices and halving hours. Those cuts dominate the conversation as 2,000 post office employees from across the country gather in L.A. for the national convention of the American Postal Workers’ Union.

"Once you got a postal job, you were secure, you were set for life," Trisha Mack remembers. She's spent 17 years working at a mail processing facility in Tampa, Fl.

"Now, that's questionable because we’re not sure what the congressmen or congresswomen plan for our future," she says. "Unfortunately, we can’t promote this type of job to our children because we’re not sure that this type of job will exist."

Mack started with the post office just as e-mail and the Internet started chipping away at the need for postage, pens and paper.

Most postal workers don’t blame the digital revolution for lean times on the job. The problem, they say, is a law Congress passed six years ago that requires the postal service to pre-fund its retiree benefits 75 years into the future.

In its most recent fiscal quarter, the postal service lost more than $5 billion. More than half of that went to pre-funding retiree benefits. The agency's financial statements suggest that it loses $25 million a day. The industry's solution is to close or consolidate thousands of facilities and shed about a fifth of its workforce.

"We have thousands of people across the country [whose] facilities are closing and they’re looking for places to place them," says Chuck Locke, who started as a postal clerk 25 years ago and now works as a business agent for the union.

"Not only are they not going to hire new employees," says Locke. "They have a hard time now finding places to put employees that are full time."

Locke says the postal service is hiring plenty of temporary workers who earn far less than career employees and don’t qualify for healthcare and pension benefits. Those workers don’t have a shot at a full-time postal “career” until they have worked a year.

Jeremy Erickson has worked as a postal clerk in Sitka, Alaska for 15 years and makes sure to be straight with the recent hires about their prospects beyond that year.

"I tell them, 'you know, it’s not looking good,'" he says. "I tell them what I see: they could let you go in a year. They could let you go at any time."

That said, Erickson thinks his job is steady and acknowledges the benefits are good. Right now, postal service retirees may maintain healthcare benefits for themselves and dependents for life, if they’re willing to pay a portion.

But employees like Erickson who are more than a decade from retirement wonder what benefits, if any, will exist for them when they're ready to hang up their uniforms.

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