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The Myrtle Cruz Inc. accounting company usually gets between 250 and 500 pieces of mail daily at its downtown office. So it was unusual when not even one letter arrived on a recent day.
Office manager Mary Jarmon found it even stranger when nothing was delivered on another day in that same week. In fact, the mail carrier didn't even show up.
As it turns out, Jarmon was just discovering what remains a mystery to most unaware Houston mail customers. Major changes in the area's postal service have thus far created chaotic conditions in mail delivery to many homes and businesses.
Some postal workers themselves call it a mess that has left some routes without regular carriers. In the affected areas, delays of up to a week are snarling regular service, while some mail still arrives -- but as late as 9 p.m.
The United States Postal Service has an explanation: This is actually a major stride toward efficiency and improved service -- as well as the elimination of more than 400 postal jobs.
While politicians are locked in wars over legislative and congressional redistricting, the U.S. Postal Service has been engaging in a recent behind-the-scenes battle of its own over redistricting for mail carriers.
The USPS imported 65 inspectors for an intensive four-month analysis of carrier routes. Such reviews are standard for the postal service -- one was conducted about two years ago, although this one ended recently with what officials call the biggest rerouting in the history of mail service in the Houston area.
Growth in the region requires adjustments to even out the demands on the carrier routes. New developments or declines in residential or business activity can vastly increase or decrease the volume of mail to be delivered and picked up on a route.
The USPS nationally has been under pressure to reduce costs to offset spiraling deficits. In Houston, officials were reported to be trying to slash the annual $6.5 million expense of mail delivery by more than half.
David Lewin, a spokesman for the postmaster's office here, explains that the rerouting is needed to make the service more efficient and to enable employees to finish their duties within the regular eight-hour workday. Other adjustments take into account technological advances such as presorted mail, which enables carriers to get to the streets faster. "We are trying to condense the routes," Lewin says.
However, that condensing has another connotation -- job cuts -- for the union that represents about 4,000 postal workers here. The local branch of the National Association of Letter Carriers argues that the postal service contradicts itself by claiming the changes will speed up service while it is disrupting mail delivery by eliminating some 400 postal positions.
The labor contract allows annual inspections for rerouting, but the NALC says this massive change violates the agreement. To the union, the primary villain is Texas USPS vice president George Lopez, who oversees the rerouting.
Dennis Drew, recording and financial secretary for the local NALC, says Lopez used route inspections as an excuse to make wholesale cuts in routes and carriers in Phoenix. After he left, the postmaster there had to cancel the changes because of staggering overtime costs, Drew claims.
Union leaders believe Lopez is trying to repeat what they call the Phoenix debacle. The union vows to fight the cuts, arguing that the Lopez-trained inspectors violated contract provisions by basing the rerouting on their preconceived agenda to eliminate jobs -- even if the analysis of the routes didn't support such reductions.
The union can go to arbitration to restore some jobs and overtime pay, but the process could take two to three years. "The carriers who worked extra don't want that," Drew says. "They want their lost personal time back."
With the redrawn routes, Drew says, the workloads require some carriers to deliver mail until eight or nine at night. The post office can no longer sort all of the mail that comes in on its busiest days, Mondays and Tuesdays, so the sorting and delivery backlog stretches deeper into the week, Drew says.
The USPS also has removed several of the blue public collection boxes in locations that filled up the fastest, Drew says. With fewer boxes, customers have more trouble finding places to mail letters.
In explaining impacts on customers, he says Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee had a complaint from a 70-year-old woman who says she had to ride a bus to mail a letter because they had removed so many boxes in her neighborhood.
Lewin of the USPS scoffs at accusations that mail service has been disrupted. He explains that rerouting has just begun, so there are minor problems to be worked out in the transition to the new system.
"We are not error-free yet," he says, adding that the public will benefit from improved service when the new routing is fine-tuned. Lewin says there have been few complaints from the public, while NALC leaders say they have been besieged by calls from customers complaining of late deliveries -- or, like Jarmon of Myrtle Cruz Inc., no deliveries at all.
The company handles over 200 accounts, including those for several municipal utility districts. Governing boards for those districts meet only once a month, so a missed bill means delays of 30 days or longer before directors can authorize a check for payment.
Jarmon says the problems are now being worked out. They've been irritating, but not nearly as frustrating to her as the search for answers to the disruption of the mail service.
Postal supervisors, she says, tried to argue that the company simply didn't have any mail sent to it on the days when none arrived, or that there were no problems. At one point a postal manager told her there simply wasn't any carrier assigned to that route, an explanation that was later retracted.
Most troubling to her is that the postal service appeared not to know what was going on -- and didn't really care. She concluded, "They all seem to be very confused over there."