Rural mail carriers confront management about overwork and underpayment

Elle Hawes describes the conditions faced by rural mail carriers in Canada, and how workers are taking back the workfloor to demand an end to unfair treatment.

“I am pleased to offer you a position as a Permanent Relief Employee… Working with us, you will be able to explore all kinds of possibilities… while you nurture your own personal growth… [Y]ou will be guaranteed 30 hours of work per week.” When Canada Post hires new Rural and Suburban Mail Carriers (RSMCs), that is what is said in the offer letter. Even from an outside perspective, it looks like a great job. However, they do not tell you that you are not paid for all of your hours worked. When you ask for clarification from management, often you are referred to the pay department in Toronto, which gives conflicting answers, leaving you feeling helpless and frustrated.

This is how we decided to fight back against these wrongful conditions.

Canada Post has two bargaining units: (Urban) Letter Carriers, and Rural and Suburban Mail Carriers (RSMCs). Letter Carriers deliver either to a community mailbox or do door-to-door delivery. Letter Carriers are paid hourly and are eligible (in most cases) for overtime.

For many years, RSMCs were “contractors” rather than employees, which meant no benefits and inferior working conditions, as well as much less pay. On September 30, 2003, RSMCs received a ratified collective agreement making them members of the Canadian Union of Postal Workers with rights. Even though RSMCs are now part of CUPW, working conditions are vastly different than for Letter Carriers. RSMCs do not work for an hourly wage; rather they are paid by “activity values”, and are expected to be out on the road delivering up to 8 pm or later.

Ultimately, letter carriers and RSMCs do the same job. Until September 2018, there was an approximately 28% wage gap between letter carriers, which are a majority male workforce, and RSMCs, which are a majority female workforce. In September 2019, arbitrator Maureen Flynn awarded RSMCs equal pay to Letter Carriers, including flyers and activity values equal to the hourly rate of letter carriers. This was a huge step for RSMC pay equity, but there is still a long way to go.

In the Urban contract which covers Letter Carriers, Article 33 is comprised of health and safety topics, including the right to refuse unsafe work, with specific wording preventing anyone else from doing that work. RSMCs are covered under the Labour Code part II, and when invoking right to refuse, the company can send out anyone else to do that unsafe work. This is a concern for all employees, but especially “permanent relief” RSMCs, as they would be the one assigned to do the work someone else has refused.

Permanent relief employees cover for permanent route holders who are on vacation, personal leave or other leave, like short or long term disability, extended vacation, etc.

The reality of an RSMC permanent relief employee’s (PRE) job is that, when assigned to sort and deliver a route, employees are paid the “route value” and are expected to work until finished the route. Employees do not get overtime for putting in time above 8 hours a day or 40 hours in a week, which means on really heavy mail and parcel days — Monday/Tuesday after a long weekend or regularly during Christmas — it is not uncommon to put in a 12-14 hour day and only get paid for 6-8 hours.

If a person is sent home and not assigned to a route, they get $90 for that day. This amount was $60 before the pay equity award in September 2018. Bumping the amount of not being assigned to a route up to $90 is huge, however, if the person is only doing half of a route, they may get less than $90, therefore not making it worthwhile for that person. If a person chooses to go home and not sort or deliver a route, they are not guaranteed the $90.

Many new PREs have offer letters that state they will be guaranteed 30 hours of work per week, but have been getting paid less than 30 hours per week. When asked about this, one manager said “it’s complicated”.

Employees within 6 months of hire are on probation, so many feel like they can’t speak up about this issue as they don’t want to lose their job, in turn sacrificing their livelihood due to management’s inability to pay properly and follow through on their commitment of 30 hours of work per week.

Since September 2018, there have consistent errors in pay, to the point that people have not been able to feed their families, and have had to take their children out of extracurricular activities. The stress of not knowing what one is going to get paid, and then wondering if it will be fixed in time, has extreme negative effects, including debt collection, anxiety, depression, and conflict on the workfloor with colleagues and management. These people are working to pay their bills and feed their families, yet pay has been so messed up that it’s causing harm to individuals and having residual effects outside of work. In one situation, the error in pay caused the employee to not make enough to cover the cost of fuel to drive to work and deliver a route, this was not fixed for weeks.

Grievances have been filed in many cases, however this is a lengthy process which does not have timely results. The PREs have now decided to take immediate collective action against these poor working conditions and let the employer know that changes need to happen now.

In June, after other organizing events in our local, two depots took a stand (in separate events) and rightfully asked the employer to fix all of the pay issues and ensure better working conditions going forward.

On June 6, 2019, 10 PREs gathered in the facility lunchroom. Management refused to join as they assumed they were being attacked. Employees waited for about 5 minutes, then management finally joined the meeting. Issues were presented and real life stories were told, about having to access the food bank, and other hardships due to pay inaccuracy. Concerns were voiced about not having access to route values before taking the assignment, and also being assigned to “delivery only” and standing around the depot for 2.5 hours and not being paid for that time. Essentially, PREs work for free on a regular basis. A letter was printed and all of the affected employees signed, the date of resolution asked for was June 13. Since this meeting, management has suggested changing the start time for PREs to 8am and adding a seniority equal opportunity list for daily assignments. They are also “monitoring” the hours that PREs work in a week to make sure they have their 30 hours per week.

On June 21, 2019, the RSMCs in another depot asked for a floor meeting with management. They had been experiencing the same issues — extreme pay errors and horrible communication between management and employees as to what is expected. They had a letter that was similar to but slightly different from the one presented on June 6, which everyone in this case had also signed. Just as everyone was gathered, management called for a fire drill. Unshaken, the group reconvened after the fire drill and the letter was read out. Management acknowledged the group and said that the issues are being addressed at a city-wide level and that they will get back with answers as soon as they can, and that the letter would be added to the complaint from the 6th.

As management were starting to walk away, one employee stood in front of the group and asked that everyone help in this battle of pay inaccuracy, whether their pay be out $20 or $250. In the last 4 weeks, this person had taken home less than $1200, forcing them to take their child out of extracurricular activities and have hard conversations with debt collectors because the money owed to them is just not being correctly paid. Management simply raised one hand and walked away from the group after the employee was done speaking.

Management has since asked for more time.

All in all, the struggle continues and now that more employees have heard these stories of solidarity and challenging the boss on things that shouldn’t have to be a fight, there are murmurs about more premeditated organizing activity in other depot, as all PRE RSMCs face the same issues from depot to depot. The more organizing that happens, the more this will put pressure on management to come up with viable solutions, as these working conditions are not acceptable and not only break our collective agreement but the Canadian Labour Code and basic human rights on some levels. Marching on the boss is one way to get management’s attention, but standing together has sure made them aware that as a group we are unshakable. An injury to one is an injury to all.