Jonathan Smith, a Black mail-processing equipment mechanic who joined the U.S. Postal Service in 1988, remembers his grandfather being so proud of his career at the agency that he wore his uniform even when he wasn’t working.
“That job made us part of the middle class,” said Smith, 51, whose aunts and uncles also built careers at the Post Office. For many Black Americans, he said, “The Postal Service is that last symbol of the power of the middle class.”
That ticket to economic security could be in jeopardy now. If President Donald Trump and Congress fail to resolve their fight over Postal Service funding, it won’t just put the agency’s financial future at risk. It could imperil one of the country’s longest-running and most reliable civil service jobs, potentially forcing steep cuts to an estimated 669,000-person workforce that is more than one-quarter Black — a rate more than double that of the national labor force.
The sheer reach of the post office in all 50 states combined with the federal government’s anti-discrimination policies have made employment there more accessible than most industries to generations of Black workers. The agency’s pay and benefits often allowed them to share in the American Dream even when racial discrimination was everywhere in the country. A unionized postal worker can make as much as $75,000 a year, well above the national average income.
To be sure, that dream has been gradually eroding throughout the years as Postal Service career employment has declined by more than 37 percent since 1999. That’s largely because of automation and financial difficulties, including a decline in letter mail delivery with the arrival of email and the agency’s struggle to make package delivery profitable.
But the recent troubles are coming at an especially bad time, with the coronavirus-induced recession hitting Black Americans much harder than white Americans. Black Americans are not only nearly three times more likely to be hospitalized for Covid-19, but their unemployment rate was at 14.6 percent in July compared with 9.2 percent for white Americans.
The Labor Department has projected that overall employment of Postal Service workers will decline 21 percent from 2018 to 2028. And Louis DeJoy, Trump’s new postmaster general, has said the agency would freeze hiring and seek future early retirement authority “for employees not represented by a collective bargaining agreement.” On Tuesday, DeJoy said he would halt some key restructuring efforts until after the election following complaints from Congress.
While the debate during the latest round of coronavirus relief talks has focused on whether supplying emergency funds to the post office is needed to preserve election integrity and ensure package delivery, Smith and other workers like him fear even greater damage from Washington’s inaction: It could undo years of gains in racial equity that the USPS helped make possible.
“One of the things that attracted me was its commitment to diversity,” said Smith, who heads the American Postal Workers Union’s New York Metro chapter. “When you come from a predominantly Black community … you come into a melting pot.”
That was certainly true for his grandfather, for whom the job symbolized the opportunities he had found in the North after fleeing the institutionalized racism of the Jim Crow South, he said.
Union officials and the USPS have issued numerous statements over the summer reiterating their confidence that the agency can handle mail-in ballots for November’s election. But Trump’s resistance to sending USPS more funds, worker reports of a slowdown in mail delivery, and the mail carrier’s warning letters sent to 46 states and D.C. about mail-in ballots possibly arriving late challenge those claims.
Congress recognized that the mail carrier’s financial challenges were being exacerbated by the pandemic when it provided the agency with a $10 billion loan in a March stimulus bill, H.R. 748 (116). But unions and Democrats — for whom Black Americans are the most reliable voter bloc — say the aid needs to go further, calling for $25 billion that the agency wouldn’t have to pay back.
Republican critics of the post office argue that the Trump administration has every right to demand an overhaul of the agency, saying the USPS has suffered for years from mismanagement and inefficiency.
USPS “owes it to the American people to improve their operations — this is a fact that even Democrats agreed with when it was politically convenient to do so,” Rep. James Comer (R-Ky.), the top Republican on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, said in a statement.
Whereas many other federal agencies are concentrated in specific areas, the USPS — where Black people make up 27 percent of the workforce — has offices across the country. It’s that geographic diversity that, beginning after World War II when Black veterans returned home in search of civilian careers, helped form “the genesis of [USPS] as one of the bulwarks of the Black middle class,” said William Spriggs, an economics professor at Howard University and the AFL-CIO’s chief economist.
“The post office is everywhere,” Spriggs said. “And because it’s less easy to discriminate, it’s an easy route to a federal position.”
‘So you have retirement benefits, you have health care — you have all the things that go with a unionized job.”
Angela Johnson joined the USPS in 1996, working her way up through various mail-processing roles to her current position of general clerk. Now president of APWU’s Northeast Florida chapter, Johnson credits the agency with elevating her and her family to “a better position financially.”
“Many Black families excel through working at the post office,” Johnson, 48, said. “When people first come in, it’s their first job — or their first good job, like it was for me. I was able to do a lot for my kids; it was no longer a struggle for me.”
“It’s going to be a big hit if the post office is not helped. It’s a domino effect for the middle-class Black family who can’t afford that hit.”
For Black workers, that financial security is often more desperately needed than it is for white workers. The net worth of the typical white family is almost 10 times greater than that of a Black family, according to the Brookings Institution — meaning that Black workers rely that much more on their current income than do white workers.
Postal employees “have a secure retirement, secure health benefits — and these are even more valuable to workers of color than they are to white households, who might have inherited money or have other cushions to rely on,” said Monique Morrissey, an economist at the Economic Policy Institute. “This is true in general of the public sector, but it’s especially true of the Postal Service.”
“That’s why the fact that these jobs are being undercut right now has repercussions beyond just the workers themselves, for the Black middle class,” she said.
But it’s not just Black employees who could be affected by the USPS’ decline. Spriggs said many Black families live in rural areas only served by the agency — not FedEx and UPS. Black Americans make up 20 percent of the South’s population, compared with 13 percent in the Northeast and 6 percent in the West, according to the 2010 Census.
The inability to guarantee mail delivery would jeopardize thousands of mail-order prescriptions — a lifeline for the disabled and elderly, many of them veterans, who live in places where traveling to a pharmacy could be costly and time-consuming.
“It’s devastating both from the workers’ side and from the community side,” Spriggs said. “A lot of people forget the majority of Black people live in the South, and a lot of them live in rural communities.”
DeJoy’s efforts to reorganize the mail carrier drew criticism from both parties in Congress, responding to constituents who are suddenly more reliant on the post because of the pandemic.
Postal workers say DeJoy’s policies, including the elimination of overtime and late trips, would make it nearly impossible to cope with sweeping changes that are affecting their jobs every day, including the drop-off in letter mail and an explosion in package delivery.
Unable to work extra hours and with many colleagues on leave to take care of themselves or family members, employees report being forced to head home while many packages and other pieces of mail remain undelivered, a trend they say has resulted in the overall slowdown of mail delivery across the country.
“They took an oath of office when they got hired,” said Judy Beard, political director for the American Postal Workers Union. “And now they’re going home [and] leaving boxes — it could be medicine in the boxes, it could be checks in the envelopes — and they don’t feel comfortable about their work anymore.”