Postal workers conquer snow, ice and dangers

“Neither snow, nor rain, nor heat, nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds,” reads the unofficial motto of the United States Postal Service. While this nostalgic saying from another era does nothing to mention extremely cold temperatures, postal workers in Caledonia last week could have added that to the list of obstacles they overcame. With temperatures reading minus 23 degrees Thursday and minus 27 degrees Friday morning as they set out, mail carriers in Caledonia left bundled in up to six layers of clothing, wind pants, La Crosse Footwear boots, hand warmers, and stylish rabbit-fur-aviator-bomber-ear flap hats.

What’s the trick to staying warm? Diane Fields, in her fourth winter as a mail carrier responded, “move out as quickly as I can, keep the body heat up and dress in layers. Yesterday I had on two pair of long johns, my postal pants, and coveralls.”

Anne Doering has been a Caledonia mail carrier since 1997.  Her route takes her eight and a half miles up and down city streets each day. While the cold, and more specifically the wind, can be unpleasant, she was quick to point out, “the worst is the ice.”

Fields also commented that the ice is worse than the cold due to its unpredictable nature. “I would say this winter with the aftermath of the ice storm,” was her answer to a question inquiring about the worst conditions she’s worked in. “The ice continues to be an issue although the more recent snow cover has added a little bit of traction.”

Caledonia Postmaster Dennis O’Connell affirmed those positions.  Once a mail carrier in Hudson, Wis., he has delivered mail in his share of winter weather. “I fell on a cement step once and hit my head on a porch,” he remembers. “One thing people don’t realize is wooden steps can be slippery, too.”

The ice storm at the beginning of the month made routes particularly treacherous. While their goal is to deliver “every piece every day,” O’Connell explained that safety always comes first. He followed that by noting on rural routes there were three to five people who didn’t get their mail for a couple of days due to dangerous roads and driveways but said that people understood.

Daily deliveries are made by three city mail carriers, two working a full day in the field and the other half a day, and three rural drivers all pulling eight hour shifts. Rural drivers typically put on a combined 330 miles each day while city carriers walk approximately 18-20 miles, not counting some “mounted deliveries” made from the truck.

According to USPS 2006 statistics, nearly 26,000,000,000 pounds of mail was delivered that year across the nation. This amounts to over 83,000,000 pounds of mail each work day. For city letter carriers, this amount is delivered one 35 pound bag at a time.  “A lot of people have the perception that it’s easy, O’Connell mentioned. “It’s a physically demanding job. It is hard on the body. Anything the customer can do for them helps.”

With the weather making delivering mail difficult enough, O’Connell encourages homeowners and businesses to take the appropriate steps to assure the carriers’ safe and timely delivery.

For mailboxes along the street or road he encourages people to shovel around them. “A car length on each side” is necessary to allow the postal truck a clear approach he said.

For houses in town, “steps, driveways, and sidewalks must be clear.”  Doering stated homeowners often shovel their driveways but neglect to clear unused sidewalks leading up to the front door and mailbox.

O’Connell also explained that shoveling a path to the street from your front sidewalk is another big help. Some routes demand the mail carriers deliver to both sides of the street as they progress, making street crossings frequent. Often there is no path from the sidewalk to the street. This forces postal employees to either spend time going around or risk climbing over the snowbank.

Postal carriers have notes they will leave for property owners with dangerous walkways. In bold letters it states “you have 24 hours in which to have the approach to your mailbox free of snow and other hazards.” O’Connell indicated they have already handed out a lot of them this year.

“I always try to compliment people when they do a good job,” stated Doering.

Despite the hazards of winter weather, dogs are still the number one cause of injuries for most postal employees. “Ice and dogs, both of those things are treacherous,” stated Fields. “I’ve had bad experiences with both in Caledonia.”

When road conditions are bad, the mail truck from Rochester can sometimes be delayed. Although scheduled to arrive around 7 a.m., slow travel conditions can sometimes delay it by half an hour or more. A late arrival sends off a chain reaction delaying carriers as well.

Since it seemed like the mail carriers found ways to cope with the cold, I asked how the mail trucks were handling the weather.  “Terrible,” was the quick response from O’Connell.  “Two didn’t start this morning,” he said with a slight tone of frustration. Called long life vehicles, or LLVs for short, they are vehicles built specifically for the Postal Service designed to last 20 years without an overhaul. Average fuel economy is 17 mpg and while void of much comfort on the inside, they are still quite expensive, prompting the Post Office to continue making repairs on the 20 year old machines rather than investing in new ones. They have heaters but on cold days like we’ve been having are inefficient at heating the large space and cool down quickly when turned off during stops.

O’Connell refers to them as a “pop can on wheels” for their simplicity and metal structure. Although the mail trucks were plugged in the night before, O’Connell and crew realized the next morning the heater on one no longer functioned.

“Ellingsons is letting me keep one in their shop tonight,” O’Connell said. The other will be housed in Caledonia Oil’s garage. A quick glance inside one LLV in the parking lot verified everything O’Connell said. I tried to jot down a few notes on the vehicle specifics but abandoned the idea when I discovered the ink in my pen had already froze.

Doering described the ideal delivery conditions as a sunny day in the fall or spring at a temperature of 65 degrees. Despite the desire for warmer weather, she said, “I would take [this weather] over the heat and humidity because you can always put more clothes on.”  Fields expressed the opposite, “My preference is hot weather. Cold weather is toughest. A nice hot sunny day is perfect.”

Doering said that some people ask her when she is going to get a promotion and be put behind the desk. She laughs at the idea of working behind a desk as a promotion. “I love it. I wouldn’t trade it for any other job here. Its not a promotion to be in the office.” All of that being said on perhaps the coldest day of the year, and you better believe she likes her job. “You walk around and you’re thankful you have a job,” she added. Fields agreed saying she is “very happy to have the job” as well and likes delivering mail.

While for many local residents, the cold temperatures are another excuse to hunker down indoors, for postal carriers the brisk weather is simply another challenge to overcome. If you do find your mail a little late some cold or snowy day, more than likely a cold engine or slick road conditions are to blame, not a wimpy mail carrier as I found out.

Whatever the case, neither snow, nor rain, nor COLD, nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.


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