Earlier this year, Amazon became the second U.S.-based company to be valued at more than $1 trillion. Yet for all its dominance and efficiency, Amazon relies on a dusty, centuries-old system to deliver at least a third—and possibly as much as half—of its packages around the country: the United States Postal Service.
In mid-October, I spoke with a mail carrier who works at a midsize hub of the U.S. Postal Service in rural New England. As a rural carrier associate, they make just under $18/hour in a continuous, part-time position. During the week, the carrier says that between 75 and 80 percent of the packages they deliver are Amazon packages; on Sundays, when no letters are delivered, they deliver Amazon packages exclusively, the result of a revenue-generating agreement the USPS entered into with the company in 2013.
Though even basic contract information remains elusive, we know something about the scale of Amazon’s operation: Early this year, the company announced it shipped more than 5 billion items worldwide through Amazon Prime in 2017; meanwhile, something like half of all Amazon’s shipments in the United States are ultimately delivered by the USPS, an arrangement that market analysts seem to agree is a mutually beneficial one: the Postal Service, which receives no federal funding, reported a net loss of only $2.7 billion in 2017.
But the arrangement has also increased the amount of work without also expanding the full-time career workforce. In addition to working Sundays and holidays, part-time employees are called on to cover career carriers’ regular routes if they are on vacation or out sick. These workers are paid less, have fewer benefits, and are beholden to more chaotic scheduling than their full-time counterparts; meanwhile, the increasing number of Amazon packages means more—and more difficult—work.
Can you explain what an Amazon Sunday is?
They [the USPS] do a computer-generated route every Sunday, so you show up, and depending on who has ordered packages, they hand you a paper sheet of turn-by-turn directions of what the computer has generated as the most efficient route. It’s wildly inaccurate most of the time. I generally know some of these towns now, so I look at these directions, and I’m like “Well, that’s not even remotely the most efficient path.” But you just have to use it because you can get in trouble if you go off route.
How do they know if you go off route?
Oh, we’re tracked by GPS the whole time. Regular days and Sundays. We have little scanners, and you have to scan every package when you deliver it. But [USPS] also tracks you the whole time you’re driving, so they’ll use it to check up on you.
We’re a huge workforce that’s already driving a consistent route everywhere in the country. They’re depending on this pre-existing fleet of shitty 30-year-old trucks that already go everywhere in the country.
It’s a network they can tap into and just feed their packages through without having to establish their own network. It’s the dependability… There’s also just no limit to how much [USPS will] make us work. There’s no limit on days worked in a row with the Postal Service—for RCAs [rural carrier associates] and CCAs [city carrier assistants] at least.
I don’t know if the tendency to overwork the employees [happened] before Amazon, but the Postal Service just refuses to treat their employees like humans, and we deliver Amazon packages until we drop dead.
A few weeks ago, an ARC [assistant rural carrier] from our office, on a Sunday, was looking at those turn-by-turn directions that I was telling you about. The paper ones. He glanced at them because, again, it’s turn-by-turn, and this is a newly generated route for that day. It’s unique every Sunday. So, he doesn’t know where he’s going. He literally just glanced down, and his hand turned the wheel away from the curb a little bit, and then he looked up, realized he kinda drifted, and he overcompensated to the right and hit the curb. Then overcompensated again to the left and his truck flipped over.
He’s okay, but the next day, they took us all in the morning for a safety talk and showed us a picture of the truck flipped over. They’re like, “Never look at the mail, never look at your directions when you’re on the road.” They put the blame on him for crashing his truck. In my mind I’m like, “Okay. How the fuck is he supposed to get where he’s going without looking at this?” They make the system work like this, and then they blame you. No matter what, it’s your fault, ’cause you either don’t know where you’re going or you crash your truck.
We have a lot of instances of heat stroke. Every morning, when it’s gonna be hot, the postmaster walks around, reads his little spiel like, “Stay hydrated. If you need to take a break, take a break in shade. Safety’s your responsibility.” But when they yell at you to your face about being faster and faster every single day—when the fuck are you supposed to take a break? So it’s like, “Do you want me to be fast, or do you want me to not get heat stroke?” They just tell you these things so that the blame isn’t on them. No matter what, it’s your fault. You’re either slow, or you’re dead. It’s very dystopian. It’s kind of a nightmare right now.
Why do they treat you this way?
That’s a hard question to answer. The immediate material reason is because we are catastrophically short-staffed and what they would probably consider “consumer demand.” Customers demanding six-day-a-week mail delivery and Amazon demanding seven-day-a-week delivery. I feel like I work for Amazon because the physical toll that the job takes on my body is mostly related to packages, and my lack of time off is mostly due to Amazon because of the Amazon Sundays. This is not really answering the question, but I feel like my life depends on Amazon. I imagine that the Postal Service treats us like this because they’re answering the demands of Amazon. Like, “If we upset Amazon, they’ll pull out, and we need their help.” I’ve heard that from my supervisors.
When I’m talking to co-workers, something I’ve been trying to do is just like—everyone’s so understandably bogged down with the day-to-day and just getting through the day. They’re not thinking big picture. If something’s wrong, they’re just like, “Well that’s the fucking way it is.” We all get to that point. You get really beaten down by this kind of work. But I’ve been trying to introduce bigger ideas to people, like, “Does it have to be this way?” kind of stuff.
Something I’ve been thinking about is just like, if the U.S. government gave the Postal Service 0.0001 percent of the military budget we wouldn’t have to depend on Amazon. If we even had like a dime of federal funding, we wouldn’t be breaking our backs all the time. We could take a step back and reorganize the whole way the Postal Service works in a better and more humane way.
The workers themselves are so tired and beaten down that they haven’t been organizing to push for something like that. It’s a constructed funding shortage that Amazon has exploited for its own purposes. This instituted austerity regarding the Postal Service was the perfect opportunity for Amazon to come in and transform what was at least a mildly public institution into a fully private one.