November 25, 2012 in Business

Spokane Postmaster Fairlee stays true to USPS mission

Michael Guilfoil Correspondent
 
Jesse Tinsley photoBuy this photo

Karen Fairlee, pausing in the main downtown Post Office work room on Nov. 19, is the postmaster of Spokane.
(Full-size photo)

Five facts

• Year Postal Service launched:  1775.

• Current employees: 574,000.

• Budget: $71 billion.

• All-time peak mail volume:  2006.

• Famous letter carriers: Newman (Wayne Eliot Knight) on “Seinfeld”; Cliff Clavin (John Ratzenberger) on “Cheers”; the postman (Kevin Costner) in the film “The Postman” (1997).

Karen Fairlee’s childhood exposure to mail delivery was enough to dissuade most sensible people from considering a career with the U.S. Postal Service.

“I grew up in Billings, Mont., where winters were brutal. And I remember our carrier, wrapped head to toe, his arms sticking almost straight out to the side, delivering mail when it was 20 below zero. That really made an impression.”

… Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.

So how did Fairlee end up as Spokane’s postmaster?

When she was 22 and working in an accounting department in Casper, Wyo., one of her responsibilities was taking the mail meter to the post office to have it reloaded.

“They had a sign there inviting people to take the Postal Service test, and I thought, ‘Huh, that sounds like a pretty good gig.’ ”

By Casper standards, working for the Postal Service couldn’t compare with oil-field wages. “But it was a very stable job,” she said, “with great benefits.”

Once hired, Fairlee unloaded trucks for two years and carried mail for 13 before moving into management. She was named Spokane postmaster in 2008.

During a recent interview, Fairlee discussed how the Postal Service has evolved, the challenges it faces and how customers can increase the likelihood that their holiday packages will arrive on time.

S-R: “Postmaster” is such a distinguished title. Does it automatically demand respect?

Fairlee: It used to, but nowadays people usually ask if I have a route.

S-R: What does the job entail?

Fairlee: A lot of scheduling and staffing, budget allocation, vehicles.

S-R: How many employees do you manage?

Fairlee: Approximately 470. That’s down quite a few from years ago.

S-R: How have mail systems evolved during your career?

Fairlee: When I started, almost everything was done by hand. We had some machines for canceling the mail, and letter-sorting machines, but we keyed in the addresses. Carriers would come in and spend three or four hours putting their mail into route sequence. Now, 95 percent of letters come in delivery-point sequence. So the big change has been automation and improvement in mail sorting.

S-R: What are some of the best ideas the Postal Service has come up with?

Fairlee: Self-adhesive stamps, the forever stamp and Priority Mail Flat Rate – the boxes. They’re so easy. People don’t have to worry how much they weigh or what goes into them.

S-R: What changes were less successful?

Fairlee: We don’t change much. We’re a pretty static organization, to tell you the truth. (long pause) Probably the Segways (two wheeled self-balancing personal transport) on urban routes. They tried them in San Francisco and Manhattan. I don’t know why they didn’t work out.

S-R: Do you anticipate the end of Saturday mail delivery?

Fairlee: It depends on what Congress wants to do. We’ve repeatedly told them that dropping first-class delivery on Saturday is one way to help us remain viable, but it’s up to them.

S-R: The most recent Postal Service fiscal year ended with a $15.9 billion loss. How else can you save money?

Fairlee: The prefunding of our employee benefits plan has to be modified. We defaulted on our last two payments because we just couldn’t make them.

S-R: Anything else?

Fairlee: Somebody needs to care enough to give us some control over our own operations. We’re self-supporting – we don’t receive any tax dollars – but all of our regulations and every operational change or rate increase has to be approved either legislatively or by the Postal Regulatory Commission. We need to be able to be more responsive to the market, as far as pricing goes.

S-R: Can you compete with UPS and FedEx?

Fairlee: We do compete with them. We probably handle more parcels than they do. FedEx and UPS take people’s packages and then pay us to deliver them via carrier route, because we can do it much cheaper than they can.

S-R: What are some unusual items customers send through the mail?

Fairlee: Unboxed coconuts are popular. Bees, poultry, snakes and alligators are pretty common. I’ve seen a beautiful birthday cake in an open-face box with the address on the plastic wrap.

S-R: Any favorite customer reactions?

Fairlee: Once I found someone’s wedding dress in the dead-letter office. Her grandmother had mailed it, and the address label had come off. We got it to her in time for the wedding. That was pretty cool.

S-R: Back in the early 1990s, following some widely publicized workplace shootings, the phrase “going postal” gained currency. Was the culture within the agency so grim?

Fairlee: I can’t speak to what happened in those instances, because I didn’t work there. But, sadly, workplace violence is commonplace, and at that time we were the largest civilian employer in the country. I can tell you that today, for a lot of our employees, “going postal” means something completely different. It means taking ownership of the job, showing up every day and taking care of our customers. “Going postal” is no longer a bad thing, because we’re the most trusted government agency there is.

S-R: What’s the outlook for Postal Service careers?

Fairlee: Our future is going to be very different than our past. The organization has changed drastically since the advent of the Internet and the decline of first-class mail volume. My crystal ball says that in 10 years we’ll be primarily a package-delivery business, and less interactive with our customers.

S-R: What sort of person makes a good Postal Service employee?

Fairlee: Someone who’s resilient and incredibly flexible. You need a certain amount of sociability, compounded with a strong work ethic and a sense of satisfaction at completing a task. It also helps to like dogs, kids and senior citizens.

S-R: Do you brace for the onset of the holiday season?

Fairlee: We don’t dread Christmas because it’s the best time of year in the post office – there’s a lot of gratification around Christmastime. And we’ve kind of been working up to it. The election season was a pretty good precursor, as far as mail volume goes. It’s probably been five years since we’ve seen that much mail.

S-R: Besides mailing packages early, what can customers do to make the holiday season less stressful?

Fairlee: Don’t go to your local post office at the end of the day. Lines are usually a lot shorter in the morning. Have everything ready before you get there. And take advantage of online postage – your carrier can pick up your packages and save you a trip to the post office.

S-R: What do you like most about your job?

Fairlee: I love the mission – what we mean to the country. I like our history and our product. We offer really good value on a very individual basis. For just 45 cents, you can get something tangible from one part of the country to another in a reasonable period of time. That’s amazing.

Spokane freelance writer Michael Guilfoil can be reached via email at mguilfoil@comcast.net.


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