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Adventures in Letter Carrying, or: 30 Days to a Slimmer You

As many of you know, I’ve been out of work since my former media employer canned myself, and more than 100 colleagues in a shocking, pre-Christmas assault that we now call Black Friday. That was nearly two years ago. Since then, I’ve been to Toronto, Kitchener, Lincoln, and back to Toronto again, and again, for a series of job interviews that ended with the ” Oh-so-close-but-no-cigar ” second place award. One day I woke up, and decided that I was looking for work in all the wrong places. That’s when I discovered Canada Post.

It so happens that “CP” ( as they call themselves ) is in the midst of a hiring binge. They want letter carriers. Lots of them. Yes, it’s only an offer for casual employment, but the circumstances are such that casual workers are now becoming full-time employees, in less than 15 months. If that sounds like a long time, consider this; most of the current full-time carriers waited anywhere between 5 and ten years, for a permanent job. By comparison, the current rate of turnover is faster than your dryer on high spin.

There is only one door. Tremble, all ye who enter here.

Everyone that works at Canada Post these days, starts as a letter carrier. Everyone.

Back in the ’70’s this was the ultimate in ” Perfect Slacker ” jobs. A former friend used to do this in London, and would start at 7am, and be home smoking his first joint, before noon. His entire route consisted of two, large apartment buildings. And all that he had to deliver, was letter-mail.

Let me assure you, this job, is not that job. What I went through in a month of training boggled my mind, battered my body, and left me with a whole new level of respect for the men and women that deliver your letters, magazines, bills, packets, parcels, legal documents, and “little blue pills from China”, every day.

First, let’s start with some perspective.

It’s all about the numbers, and they are staggering.

Last year, Canada Post delivered nearly 8.5 Billion … with a “B”, individual pieces of mail, packets, parcels, special envelopes and Neighbourhood Mail. ( Don’t call it “junk” mail – it’s not junk, it’s gold to CP – more on that later. )

Those pieces went to 16-Million different residential and business addresses, or “Points of Call” in CP jargon, across the country. Think of that, alone. Keeping track of 16 Million different places to put stuff, all day, every day. And more than 90% of the time, they get it right.

Canada Post won’t necessarily tell you exactly how many parcels they delivered last year, but it’s in the neighbhourhood of 195 Million pieces. They will tell you that on 34 days last year, they delivered more than one Million parcels in a day. During the Christmas season last year in a single day, they delivered 1.52 Million parcels, or 36-hundred parcels a minute. They will also tell you that they are the largest parcel delivery service in Canada; bigger than FedEx, UPS and Purolator combined.

If you think on-line shopping killed Canada Post, think again. It’s the biggest source of growth in the company. All of those things that you order from Amazon, and Ebay, and Etsy — they all end up in the hands of a Canada Post letter carrier who both thanks you, and curses you, for your addiction.

And, finally, back to Neighbourhood Mail, the new cash-cow of Canada Post. In 2016 letter carriers schlepped more than four-and-a-half Billion flyers, promotions, retail invitations, and god knows what else, to your door. That earned the company more than $1.1 Billion. In fact, Neighbourhood Mail now represents almost 20% of the total business volume of the company. Combine that with the 28% share that makes up the parcel delivery segment, and nearly half of the total business of Canada Post is parcels and junk mail. ( Excuse me! Neighbourhood Mail )

Go ahead, send your postcard of Peggy’s Cove, or the Vegreville Easter Egg to grandma, it will still get there. But in terms of serious money, stamps and letters just don’t mean much any more.

I knew this wasn’t going to be easy, but are you F***ing kidding me???

So, on August 10th, I started training as a casual letter carrier for Canada Post, knowing nothing about what truly awaited me.

The first day of training was mentally gruelling. Six on-line information videos, and tests, some of them an hour long, to ingest and remember. This is all new stuff to me, and 11 other victims who shared the distinction of being the very first class of trainees, to undergo a new, four week comprehensive national training program. Did I say it was new? Like, BRAND NEW. Complete with warts, and bumps and glitches, and entirely untested on living animals, until we showed up. The new training manual is more than 300 pages. There are more than 60 different on-line modules, and dozens of on-line tests, to be viewed and completed in class. There was also instruction, and a little bit of practice on the Sortation Case, the pigeon-hole contraption that’s used to move grandma’s postcard from a bucket of unsorted mail, to a designated address on an individual Letter Carrier route, or walk. And then, there was the Personal Data Terminal, or PDT – the high tech, hand-held scanner, that keeps track of almost everything that’s done in a day by delivery personnel. And I mean everything.

To do all of this ( plus a final exam and sorting test … ) we had 64 hours of in-class time. Oh, … did I forget to mention that during that time we also had to learn how to examine and drive a large delivery van, and pass a road test on that, too? Try backing a 30 foot long truck with a rear end that swings outward by eight feet on every turn, into a tight loading dock behind your local Shopper’s Drug Mart, when you’ve never driven anything bigger than a minivan. And remember, your potential job depends on this.

Canada Post is obsessed with time. Every day is broken down into 480 minutes ( 8 hours x 60 minutes ) and measured out like gold. Everything a carrier does is broken down and given a time value. How long it takes to sort the mail. How long it takes to obtain, and safety check your vehicle. How long it takes to load the truck. Even how long it takes to walk from house to house, drive from the depot to the delivery route, take an elevator to the 14th floor, or empty a mailbox on the street. Everything. And letter carriers are expected to finish 41 individual set-tasks every day, within that 480 minute window. Yes there is overtime, and plenty of it; but the company frowns on having to pay it unless it has one, or preferably several, very good reasons to do so.

So to say that letter carriers are under considerable, and inescapable time pressure, is kind of like saying that Atlas has a bit of stuff on his shoulders.

Every route, or walk, is entirely different from any other walk, except for the fact that you have 480 minutes to complete it. Sort of like snowflakes. All made of frozen moisture; no two the same.

The average walk has roughly 500 points of call – or individual stops — along the way. Some routes, with large condos, or apartment buildings may have 12-1400. An average route covers somewhere between 10 and 15 kilometres of ground on foot, and has the equivalent number of stairs to climb as the CN tower. On a daily basis.

My feet, ankles, and knees, felt every one of those steps, over the 13 days that I was on the street. And in a city like Hamilton, that slopes towards the Niagara Escarpment, a huge number of them are headed uphill. My cardio conditioning has vastly improved over the last month, but my feet look like Godzilla’s, after he dropped half of Tokyo on his toes.

It was exhausting.

But my favourite game while out on the street, was that fun and fabulous challenge known as ” Find the Mailbox”!

Sure … that toilet could be a mailbox …

There aren’t many areas in which I would generally say that the United States has a far superior system to the one we have in Canada, but in terms of delivering mail, the placement of boxes is one. In the States, every box must follow the property line. That means it’s a straight-forward, straight-line walk, from one box to the next. Not so, here in Canada.

You wouldn’t believe what people use to collect their mail, and where you might find it, on any given property. As an old city, Hamilton still has plenty of mail-slots built into doors, window frames, enclosed porches and other structural household features, including garages, throughout the city. Finding a main-door mail slot, hidden behind the window-divider on the front screen door, can be a challenge. Finding a mailbox, mounted behind the brick column that holds up your porch, is worse. There are mailboxes in old milk boxes along the side of the house. Mailboxes hidden behind ferns and potted palms on the front steps. Mailboxes mounted on posts in the front garden, inevitably behind the tallest bush in the landscape. And then there are mailboxes, that aren’t immediately recognizable as such. Is that fishing creel by the front door a mail receptacle, or just a decoration? How about that basket by the front door? That small galvanized tub, or vintage tin? And then there are mailboxes that are no longer attached to anything, but just placed on the floor of the porch, in the darkest-possible shadow available in that area. And some of these boxes and mail slots are so small, you can barely put a single, standard-sized letter into them! If you’re wondering why your copy of Country Living, or Sports Illustrated is mashed, bashed, and partially torn every month, please check the size of your mailbox. Your carrier will thank you.

Now, if you’ve had the same route for several months – no problem; you’ve cottoned on to the quirks by now. But as a casual carrier visiting an address for the first time? Believe me, there were several moments when I wanted to kill either the homeowner, or myself, while searching out the correct spot to drop the mail. And all the while, I could hear the clock ticking down the 480 minutes of the day relentlessly. Yeah, that was no fun.

We’ve got how many pieces?

Every day was different, in terms of how much stuff there was to deliver. The only consistent measure was that it was invariably, a lot. There is no such thing as a “light day” for letter carriers. Some are just heavier than others. On any given day, an average of 60 packets and parcels was pretty standard. ( Double that at Christmastime. ) Usually, about a dozen pieces required signatures, and one or two required collecting money for Canada Customs. ( Will that be cash, or credit? ) Each one of those interactions takes time, but surprisingly, there is no time value assigned by the company for these individual transactions. It’s all in the 480 bag.

Apart from the parcel stuff, there was everyday mail, which was of course totally unpredictable. Hundreds upon hundreds of pieces some days; barely a hundred, the next. But you could always count on the Neighbourhood Mail, to make up for any shortfall you might experience.

Depending on what neighbourhood you live in, you will get anywhere from two, to twelve flyers in a day. Wealthy neighbourhoods get more, because retailers are targeting the pockets that are deepest. For a carrier however, that means you’ll be doling out somewhere between one-thousand, and six-thousand individual pieces of “junk mail”, every single day. Then there’s the catalogues. ( Damn you IKEA! Damn you to Hell! ) Do you have any idea of just how much a double satchel of IKEA catalogues weighs? No? Neither do I. I just know that it’s got to be more than the regulated 35 pounds that’s set down in the Collective Agreement between the company and CUP-W, the letter carriers union. Try lugging that uphill, all day. In steady rain. Or ice and snow.

Yup. There’s a lot of things to sort, and carry, and deliver, while walking up and down that lovely suburban street on which you reside. Pray to god there is no wind, or the mail really will be “neighbourhood mail”, scattered from one end of the street to the other.

It’s all about the Case, ’bout the Case, ’bout the Case …..

All of this humping, and hauling and walking uphill may sound awful, but really, that was the part that I enjoyed the most. Delivering the mail, is actually the fun part. The part that is not so much fun, is preparing to deliver the mail. Sorting, and organizing, and gathering together the various bits and pieces that need to go from the depot, to the POC on your route. (Sorry, Points of Call. Did I also mention that Canada Post is obsessed with acronyms? )

The company has invested Millions, nay hundreds of Millions of dollars, into the development of high-tech scanning machines that can sort the vast majority of letter mail automatically, with more than 94% accuracy. It doesn’t matter whether you have Doctor’s handwriting or not, most of the time, the machines will figure it out. But that other six percent still represents hundreds of thousands of letters that have to be sorted manually, by hand. This, is a time-consuming business. Each piece must be handled, viewed, assessed, and manually sorted into a large plastic case by individual letter carriers. Each case is broken down by street address, and set up in alphabetical, but not necessarily straight, numerical order.

For example, a street may start with either odd, or even numbers, depending on where that street is on the route, and what direction of travel, or loop, makes the most sense in terms of time and safety. ( Safety is another obsession at Canada Post, to give credit where credit is due.) Every route is set up so that the carrier has to cross the street a minimum number of times, and does so at the safest possible point. So, some streets start with even numbers and go upwards, and then switch to odd numbers and go back down — or vice-versa, depending on the direction of travel, and the layout of the route.

So, while you’re sorting, the streets in your case go up and down, and then down and up by individual numerical address, and there is no set pattern as to which order that may happen. It’s up and down; down and up, down and up and up and down, from street to street. You can’t always count on the even numbers being first, on the left hand side, and moving to odd numbers on the right. You can’t even count on them going in ascending order on the left, and descending order on the right. It could be either way. And that can make sorting tricky. Experienced carriers, familiar with their routes can do it blindfolded, and are incredibly fast. Newbies, who are not familiar with the route, are not.

The standard set by the company for new trainees, is an ability to sort 120 individual pieces of mail in ten minutes, with only one mistake allowed. That sounds like a lot of time perhaps, but it boils down to four seconds per piece of mail.  Four seconds to pick up the piece, read the address, find the street and number on the case, and drop the letter into the correct slot. And remember, there are roughly 500 slots. Never mind that the street names may involve names that are very similar, like Rothsay and Rosslyn, for example. Or streets with a court, drive and crescent all with the same name. Four seconds. That’s what you’ve got. Seasoned carriers are expected to sort at twice that pace.

In the end, that’s what finished my short, but glorious career at Canada Post. When we got to the final day of testing, I could not sort fast enough, to make the grade. The written, on-line test of those 60-odd modules? No problem. 88 percent. ( 75 is a pass. ) But the hand-eye co-ordination and speed of this 62 year old rookie, just ain’t what it used to be.

The last post ….

In the end, I have no regrets. I had fun, learned a lot, lost roughly 15 pounds, and got paid for a month’s worth of training and some overtime! The people I worked with were, to a person, great. Funny, tough, and fiercely proud of what they do. I’d take colleagues like that 8 days out of 7, and twice on Sunday. But after taking the physical beating that goes with the daily grind I knew, coming down the home stretch, that the long-term prospects for actually doing this job were slim. For those that can, and do actually do this work every day, I have nothing but admiration, and respect. It is surprisingly tough, mentally, physically, and psychologically, as they battle time, the elements, and hundreds of thousands of pieces of mail every year.

So the next time you see your neighbourhood postie out on the street, give them a wave, or a thumbs up, or even a smile. Just something to let them know, that you know, they are doing the toughest government job in all of Canada, and doing it pretty damn well.

 

scoturquhart@outlook.com

I'm a veteran broadcast journalist, producer, writer, and talk show gadabout. I like to play bad hockey, drink good beer, take sporadic rides on my bicycle and generally annoy my family with Dad jokes and selective memory. ( Lois the dog, excepted. )

This Post Has 15 Comments

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  3. All that and don’t forget the weather conditons….Winter snow and ice and walking through it and rain and exteme heat in the summer….I was lucky and got out after 33 years and it is worse nowadays. Well written. The Carriers work extremely hard. Kudos to them.

  4. My Postie co-worker said I had to read this and I am glad I did. Koodo’s to you for your astuteness. I worked many jobs before becoming a carrier, and this job is NOT like any other job.

  5. Way to go Scot , having the courage to step up to the plate and telling it like it is. We need more people like you on our side.Every letter carrier works so hard for every penny we make, and no I do not think we are overpaid.I love my job but it is not normal for someone to do an 8 hr. shift and go home nights with every bone in your body aching.(every day).Iam 4 months away from retirement and I know it is well deserved,no guilt trips. I am sad to leave my fellow co-workers behind knowing it will not get any easier for them.Once again Scott on behalf of myself and every other letter carrier across this great country (Thank you)

  6. Great article,Retired after 28 years 3 knee surgeries bad back and waiting for a knee replacement.Loved the job and my coworkers but body took a beating.

  7. Well written article and much enjoyed! I too was part of an upheaval in the broadcast business here in Niagara four years ago resulting in a termination of employment after 32 years of service. I got part-time work rather quickly but eventually things did not work out as planned and I found myself looking for a new career at age 58 in the fall of 2015.

    I, too, applied for the casual letter carrier position here in St. Catharines that year and after going through the trials and tribulations of training as you did, I successfully passed both the written and sortation test, the latter with about 10 seconds to spare. I never imagined I would actually make it through. It is unlike anything people have ever experienced, as you now well know.

    My early months were mainly long days ending after dark in the dead of winter, being the last one out of the depot in the morning and the last one back at the end of the day. But I persevered, got a little better and never said no when the phone rang. But I knew as I approached age 60 I would not be able to do this forever, so took the advice of a trusted colleague and modified my “transfer request”, the list of preferences for permanent positions all casuals fill out in hopes they will finally be hired on permanently, to include a part-time position in a P04 position inside the depot. For those not in the know that is early morning handling mis-sorted, turnaround mail and the many, many packages going out for delivery that day.

    My timing was right and in May of this year I got the call and started as a part-time inside worker here in St. Catharines. I could not be happier with how things turned out. Not everyone gets hired as a casual and it often takes years to be hired on permanently. But with more retirements these days the opportunities are coming up with a little more frequency than they once did.

    Sorry you didn’t make it all the way, but know you have nothing to be ashamed of. It is harder work than anyone could imagine, and your detailed description of your odyssey should be required reading for anyone considering applying in the future.

    I. too, shared my thoughts on my own experiences on my particular journey in my own blog as well.

    All the best!

  8. Thank you so much for recognising and writing about the exceptionally taxing job of a Canada Post Letter Carrier. You will be hard pressed to find a harder worker of one with so much pride in what they do. Take a bow men and women of CPC.
    Past CPC Supervisor

  9. I just wanted to thank you for the extremely well written description of your experience at Canada Post. I gather that you, too, went through the “maximizing efficiency” process at CHCH. Through friends I’ve seen the same top-down, fantasy “works on paper” model being applied to the messy, real world in both education and healthcare. I find it dehumanizing and demoralizing. After 28 years watching ever-increasing amounts of work being theoretically squeezed into the fictional 8 hour day I’ve finally concluded it is often not possible. My conclusion is that I am perfectly willing to do 8 hours of really good work and then let the chips fall where they may. I am not going to believe that I and my really hard working, dedicated fellow employees are simply not working hard enough. I had to laugh today when I saw our in-house T.V. was dispensing advice on “How to Deal with Depression”. This was featured directly beside a poster titled “Understanding Your Route”…I think the two might be related! Best wishes for finding a job that employs your fabulous writing skills, great perspective and imaginative voice!

  10. Thank you, Thank you, Thank you !!
    As I await a knee replacement after 29 years as a letter carrier, I appreciate this article more than you could ever know 🙂

  11. Scot what a great piece.
    Sorry to hear you did not make it.
    I disagree with their testing process. I am Peer Mentor ( Lettercarrier trainer) for the new pilot project.
    I feel accuracy is more important then speed when it comes to training, the speed aspect comes with experience.
    But I work out of the Pritchard Depot, where our roots start at 1200 points of call and average a few hundred parcels and packets on a daily basis not including Christmas where its atleast double that.
    As for delivering one third of our flyers is equal to a whole walking route.
    Good luck in your job hunt.
    Shawn Spicer

  12. It”s about time somebody actually noticed the complexity of the job. 34 yrs. five hernia operations. 2 knee surgeries. monthly Chiropractors, and many pairs of orthotics. I retired with my health and sanity still intact. they say a government pension is easy street I say I F***ing earned it

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