CHICAGO Jan 20 While delivering mail on
Chicago's North Side, Lakesha Dortch-Hardy spoke about how much
she loves her job at the U.S. Postal Service, and how much it
would hurt if jobs such as hers were to disappear.
"There would be no middle class without these jobs - it
would either be rich or poor," said Dortch-Hardy, a tall,
energetic 38-year-old, who took long strides as she wheeled her
cart along a row of two- and three-story brick apartment houses.
The cash-strapped U.S. Postal Service has eliminated 168,000
jobs since 2006, and more cuts could result as it struggles to
avoid its own "fiscal cliff." As the United States honors Martin
Luther King's civil rights legacy on Monday, many
African-American workers may be facing new obstacles to
achieving and maintaining a middle-class life style.
African-Americans represent 13.1 percent of the U.S.
population and 11.6 percent of the labor force, according to a
2012 U.S. Department of Labor report. Nearly one in five
African-American workers hold government jobs such as mail
clerks, firefighters and teachers, the report said.
"There's a long tradition of the public sector being more
friendly, or less hostile, to African-American workers," said
Robert Zieger, emeritus professor of history at the University
of Florida in Gainesville. "The Post Office is the best
African-Americans make up about 20 percent of U.S. Postal
Service workers - and are the majority in some urban centers,
representing 75 percent to 80 percent of the 5,000 letter
carriers in the Chicago area, according to Mack Julion,
president of the Chicago branch of the National Association of
But the public sector has cut nearly 600,000 jobs since
2009, due to shrinking government budgets and a range of other
issues, according to the Bureau of Labor Relations. The slower
recovery for African-Americans in the labor market has, in part,
been the result of government layoffs after the end of the
recession was declared, according to the DOL report. In
December, the black unemployment rate was 14 percent, roughly
double that of whites.
While some other sectors of the economy are seeing recovery,
the biggest problems may be just beginning for the Post Office,
the nation's second-largest civilian employer after Wal-Mart
with about 536,000 career workers.
The Postal Service has been hurt by a switch to electronic
mail from paper communication, as well as onerous retiree
payments to the government.
Last week, the Postal Service Board of Governors met to
discuss a range of cost-cutting measures to strengthen the
service's finances following the loss of a staggering $15.9
billion in fiscal year 2012.
The Postal Service, self-funded by postage sales, blames
most of the losses on a pre-funding requirement enacted by
Congress in 2006 that requires it to make annual payments of
nearly $5.5 billion in health benefits for future retirees.
The U.S. Congress has not been able to agree on legislation
to overhaul the agency. The postmaster general has proposed
eliminating Saturday mail delivery, closing some facilities and
changing its benefit payment obligations, but congressional
approval is needed for the more significant measures.
With no action by Congress, the postal service is losing $25
million a day, by some estimates, and could run out of money by
"I'm afraid that Congress is going to fiddle while the Post
Office burns," said Philip Rubio, assistant professor of history
at North Carolina A&T State University in Greensboro.
A PLACE FOR JOBS
Why are there so many African-Americans in the Post Office?
Because historically it was less prone to racial
discrimination than other employers and offered a way out of
poverty, says Rubio, a former postal worker and author of the
book "There's Always Work at the Post Office: African American
Postal Workers and the Fight for Jobs, Justice and Equality."
In 1865, the U.S. Post Office opened to black workers. The
jobs were attractive to educated African-Americans who found
their skills were not appreciated in the private sector, Rubio
said. Former postal workers of note include novelist Richard
Wright and actor Sherman Hemsley.
"It became a magnet for African-Americans who gravitated to
the one place where they could take the test and they knew once
they got in and became career employees, they were set," Rubio
said. By World War One, 10 percent of the Postal Service's work
force was African-American.
After an executive order by President Franklin D. Roosevelt
in 1941 banned discrimination in the government and defense
industries, there was a sharp rise in postal employment among
African-American men and women, Rubio said.
"Public service, particularly for African-Americans, was an
opportunity - all you need is a high school diploma," said
Dortch-Hardy took the Postal Service test after graduating
from high school on Chicago's South Side, but there were no
openings, and she did not get a job immediately. She moved to
Memphis, attended college and worked in a bank. But when the
Post Office called -- she jumped at the chance for better pay
and benefits, and returned to Chicago.
Except for very hot or heavy-snow days, and the time she had
to jump over a fence while pregnant to escape a ferocious dog,
she has enjoyed her 15 years of service. Without it, she feels
she might have to work two or three retail jobs to provide
adequately for her four children, the oldest of whom is about to
And while she and her husband, also a postal worker, are not
worried about losing their jobs, she says: "I do worry about the
people coming in now."
Julion said that the loss of more Postal Service jobs would
be devastating - not only to African-American communities, but
all communities who rely on postal jobs and service. For
example, the Postal Service is the largest employer of veterans
in the nation, after the Department of Defense.
The national average annual salary of career employees who
work directly with mail, such as letter carriers, is $53,000 to
$55,000, said a Chicago Post Office spokesman.
"These are homeowners -- people with mortgages and car
notes," Julion said. "They are big players in their community in
terms of what resources they bring to the table. They are the
ones going to the barber shops, the beauty shops, the Ma and Pa
shops in the neighborhoods - if you take those incomes away,
it's going to be devastating."
The solution, he said, is not just to get another job - if
all that's available is retail posts that cannot support a
Even many professional jobs do not pay enough, said Julion,
a father of four, who left a job as an addictions counselor to
join the Postal Service because it paid better.
Amisha Patel, head of Chicago's Grassroots Collaborative,
whose aim is to improve worker conditions, said that the problem
of crime in minority urban communities is often blamed on gangs
and bad parenting.
But another factor is the availability of work, with job
losses leading to foreclosures and ruined neighborhoods, Patel
said. "You've seen a steady decimation of good-paying jobs,
which are very much linked to the public sector."
Rubio said he hopes that President Barack Obama, who
recently announced executive orders on gun control, might
consider taking similar executive action to save the Postal
Service, rather than waiting on Congress.
It would be a "sad irony" if the Postal Service, a booster
of minority prospects since the Civil War, should unravel under
the first black president, he said.
"I don't think anything now is unfixable," said Rubio. But
if nothing is done, the damage to mail service and postal jobs
"would be very hard to undo."
(Reporting By Mary Wisniewski; Additional reporting by Elvina
Nawaguna; Editing by Greg McCune and Gunna Dickson)