DENVER — I remember the thrill I felt in the summer of 2004 when I finally got hired as a career employee by the U.S. Postal Service. After decades of low-end jobs in day care and hospitality it was a dream come true. I hoped that getting hired as a regular would lift me from the working poor into the middle class.
Incredibly, it did. I had a job with security, humane benefits and a good living wage. I am always surprised when people talk about those blessings as though they are bad things for the country. Because of my job, I was able to take in and help my brothers when they lost their less-secure jobs.
I have worked hard for those blessings, as we all do. I always wanted to become a mechanic and, after two years of study both on and off the clock, I finally had an entry level position at a post office as a maintenance mechanic, working on the machines that process the mail.
In those early few years, my post office often led our district in output. We were rewarded with praise and items like a T-shirt or cap. We, and the Postal Service, were doing an excellent job and we were even making a profit, financially. Every day, as I drove to work, I felt a thrill of pride to be part of the team.
An impossible task
And we were a team! There was a sense of camaraderie that I’ve never felt in any other workplace. There are not many female mechanics, but I was always treated with respect, because I could do the job and do it well. We liked that we were serving and helping people in an organization that had been around for over 200 years. We were a proud mix — a true cross-section and representation of the American people.
I still feel that thrill, but now it is mixed with sadness.
The Postal Service in which I take such pride has been charged to do almost impossible tasks in ways that no other business in the country has been required to do. In 2006, the Postal Service was singled out by the Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act (PAEA), as the only government agency or business in history required to fund the health care costs post-retirement for every employee for the next 75 years, and do it all in an immediate 10-year window.
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The once financially stable, profitable and proud Postal Service began to suffer — which means people began to suffer. Over the years up to today, jobs were cut or left unfilled, overtime was cut, hiring was frozen. Eventually, they began closing both plants and post offices. The hardest part to swallow, and the part that broke my heart, was that the supporters who passed the PAEA began to point out how the Postal Service was losing money, as though it was the workers’ fault.
The carriers are the beloved face of the Postal Service, as they should be, and an icon of our proud history. But as a mechanic working to keep them on their routes, in August I witnessed a scene I never could have imagined. My co-workers on another shift began dismantling at least three mail processing machines. They didn’t want to do this, they told me; they just had to follow orders.
While there is less mail being delivered this year, those machines process over a million pieces of mail a day at my post office alone and were always in use. When I asked them what they were doing, they told me that the area was going to be rearranged. I later found the machines behind the processing plant, dismantled,in a huge scrap metal dumpster — uncovered in the rain. Later, Postal Service leaders said they paused these changes, but I don’t expect the machines to ever come back. That’s a hard thing for a mechanic, or any caring person, to see.
I still count my blessings. I am still grateful that we currently can still get things to the people of our country that they need to survive and thrive, wherever they are — at every single dwelling in America. It will be a lot harder now, but we’ve done hard before.
My dad, the mailman: For mail carriers, neighborhoods and my family, the US Postal Service is personal.
I fear what will happen if the Postal Service is dismantled, like the machines, so that only the certain few benefit. The Constitution empowers Congress to “establish post offices and post roads” for all the people.
I hope all the people will work to keep the Postal Service alive and be proud of the decent living it gives workers and the valuable work it does.
Muriel Ponder has worked at the U.S. Postal Service’s Denver, Colorado, Processing and Distribution Center for the last 16 years.
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: US Postal Service worker: I saw mail processing machines dismantled