North Carolina postman muses on Postal Service changes

Myrtle Beach Sun-NewsSeptember 28, 2011 

Tom Grammen calls his postal route the “million dollar mile,” a stretch that incorporates his own personal three B’s: boulevard, beach and bikinis.

The Myrtle Beach postal carrier has worked the north end of Ocean Boulevard for the last four years. It’s such a sought-after beat that new guys put bids on his route when Grammen’s on vacation.

He’s been a postal carrier for 26 years -- 15 of those in Myrtle Beach -- and seniority has its perks when it comes to getting the golden delivery routes.

“You bid on a route and whoever has seniority gets it,” Grammen said. “I guess that’s one good thing that comes with age.”

The news is not so good for the U.S. Postal Service as a whole, which is on the eve of having used up its cash reserves, reaching its government-mandated borrowing limit of $15 billion and being unable to make a required $5.5 billion payment to its retiree health program. President Obama has proposed bailing out the mail service, urging that it be allowed to cut mail delivery to five days a week and raise the price of postage.

That could mean 120,000 postal workers could lose their jobs and thousands of post offices close their doors, including some in South Carolina.

Grammen, however, isn’t singing gloom and doom for his employer. As someone who’s been in the industry long enough to see changes first-hand, he definitely thinks the USPS will undergo a facelift. Still, the mail will continue being delivered.

“It’s a piece of Americana, one of the last few pieces,” Grammen said.

From foot to van

When Grammen started as a postal carrier at 21, he was on foot in Washington D.C. Having those personal connections with people made him feel like a part of the family.

If he delivered for one particular family long enough, he saw the kids grow up. As the man who brought them their mail, he also knew which colleges were interested, or when someone’s birthday was coming up.

However, the nation’s capital had what the Grand Strand doesn’t -- bone-chilling temperatures.

“If you’re going to carry mail for a living, do it somewhere where the weather’s nice,” Grammen said. “It’s tough to deliver in the snow.”

He packed it up for warmer temperatures, and traded his walking shoes for a set of keys.

Like many postal carriers, a van is Grammen’s primary delivery method, with the exception being a walk through the Rainbow Harbor complex near 50th Avenue North and Kings Highway.

Grammen remembers a time when most mail carriers did walk their routes. He said the most stops a person could make in a shift was 350 to 400. With the trucks, he said, officials discovered they could more than double that, jumping from 800 to 900 stops.

Assuming the Myrtle Beach Post Office near Kings Highway and Fifth Avenue North hit that 900 stops, then its 18 city and two rural routes would make 18,000 individual deliveries every day. Grammen himself estimates he handles 2,000 pieces of mail daily.

But did moving from foot to van kill that personal attention? If watching Grammen in action is any indication, not a chance.

On one of the side streets off Ocean Boulevard, he spends a few moments talking to a gentleman who was out pruning a tree. At a wedding boutique in Rainbow Harbor, the ladies inside show him the sonogram photos of a colleague’s unborn child.

And after dropping off the day’s mail at a hotel near 27th Avenue North, one of the employees -- knowing Grammen is a fan of classic rock -- gave him two burned CDs of music from Bob Seger and the Steve Miller Band.

As he says, everyone loves the mailman.

And Grammen genuinely seems to love his job. If he comes across someone on the streets, he says hello and tells them it’s a beautiful day for a walk.

The temperature inside the postal van can top 120 degrees in the summer, but Grammen is fortunate that he gets to see the ocean every day on his route -- as well as the throngs of tourists who frequent the area each year.

Most important, he loves that the job helped him raise three children and give him a home.

“It’s a good job, and you still have time for your family,” Grammen said.

Concerns of many

Postal workers across the country are worried about whether they’ll still have a job down the road.

On Tuesday, members of the USPS’ four employee unions gathered in congressional districts across the country as part of a Save America’s Postal Service rally.

According to the rally Web site, the majority of the postal service’s problems stem from a 2006 Congressional measure requiring it to pre-pay employee health benefits at the beginning of each year to the tune of $5.5 billion. This would help to fulfill a 75-year requirement in just 10 years.

“We’re $5.5 billion in the hole before we even sell a letter,” Grammen said.

Harry Spratlin, communications coordinator for the Greater South Carolina Postal District, said this measure is a large reason the USPS has experienced an $8 billion-plus per year financial shortfall over the last five years.

Over the last four years, the postal service has reduced its workforce by 110,000 through attrition only, and not layoffs, according to Spratlin.

He added that a study started in July is looking at 3,700 post offices for possible closure. Twenty-eight of those are in South Carolina, but none in Horry or Georgetown counties, Spratlin said.

This study should be complete in early 2012, and includes customer surveys and a public meeting, Spratlin said. The bulk of these are small, one-person operations that bring in around $10,000 a year, while overhead costs are at least five times that amount.

“What must happen, because of the internet primarily, is the whole system has to shrink,” Spratlin said.

He added that 5 percent of Americans paid their bills online in 2000, while 60 percent do today. In the last five years, mail volume has decreased by 43 billion pieces.

Special delivery

Grammen himself has noticed that first-class mail has dropped off in the last few years, but package delivery has picked up because of a priority flat rate.

Winter residents often have large packages delivered that have 20 pounds worth of material inside, he said. Much of that weight comes from personal medications.

“This truck is just one big pharmaceutical company in the winter,” Grammen said.

And while the postal service continues to fix its problems, Grammen is going to continue ensuring his customers get their mail on time, while always taking a moment to check out the ocean.

“I got a pretty good route,” he said.

(Steven Thomma of the McClatchy Washington Bureau contributed to this report.)

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