As a late-season snow began to fall, Jessica, a mail carrier for the United States Postal Service, sped down a country road in upstate New York toward the next mailbox along her route. Her left hand steadied the wheel of her nearly 10-year-old Jeep Compass as she slowed in front of the mailbox. With her right, she grabbed a few magazines and slid them into the box. Accelerating again, she checked the bank of the road to make sure it wasn’t too rough or muddy: She’s gotten stuck in ditches and suffered flat tires before, and there’s no cell-phone service on these roads.
I watched from the back as Jessica steered her car down hilly, unpaved roads, keeping her pace even as hail began to fly through the car’s open windows. She’s one of four mail carriers for a small town a few miles from the Canadian border. The town, and the ones around it, have seen better days: The mills closed decades ago, and the county’s sole remaining factory has threatened multiple times to outsource jobs. Most of the retail in the area is gone too; at the closest mall, about a half an hour away, there are fewer than a dozen stores still open, and the next closest shopping center is a two-hour drive.
This “retail apocalypse,” brought about by private equity and the rise of e-commerce, has in turn made Amazon even more essential for the people in Jessica’s area; for those who work long hours, have to watch their kids, or can’t spend a fortune on gas, driving two hours to buy a television or new clothes isn’t an option. They have no choice but to shop on the Internet, which means that the back of Jessica’s vehicle is filled with more packages than ever before. The packages would be hard enough on their own, since Jessica often has to get out and trudge through the snow to deliver them, but they’re not the worst of her worries: For upwards of a year, half the positions at Jessica’s postal station were vacant.
“This is the first time in years we’ve had a fully staffed office,” Jessica says. “I had to do double the work, which got to be exhausting, and very stressful.”
Jessica, who asked that her full name and station not be printed because she’s not authorized to speak to the press, is a rural mail carrier, one of more than 100,000 postal employees responsible for bringing mail to the most remote American households. She’s worked with the USPS for five years, but is technically still a “rural carrier associate” (RCA), a part-time employee who substitutes for the full-time carriers in her station.
She and other rural carriers deliver letters and packages in areas where private companies like FedEx and UPS can’t make a profit, and in small towns where brick-and-mortar stores have been vanishing. This means that Amazon, which ships an estimated 40 percent of its packages through the USPS, relies on the agency even more in rural areas, where no one else will fulfill its orders.