When the American West was the new frontier, letter carriers were known as dashing couriers of the Pony Express. Now the Internet is the new frontier, and letter carriers bear dwindling bundles of snail mail.
To combat the image of "slow" and focus on the virtue "steady," the U.S. Postal Service is arming letter carriers with lasers.
Postal carriers nationwide are now required to scan bar codes placed in mailboxes at seven locations along their route. Carriers zap the bar codes affixed to business and residential mailboxes at points about an hour apart.
The program was rolled out nationwide on June 1. The Tampa Bay area began training for the program at the same time. Postal carriers in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties started scanning bar codes in late June.
The program is meant to improve service by boosting the chances individual residents will get their mail at the same time every day.
"Consistent time-of-day delivery is always on the top of our customer surveys," said Gary Sawtelle, Suncoast District spokesman for the Postal Service.
Supervisors back at the post office will be able to monitor the carrier scan times. Postal carrier Jerry Vann didn't have time to break his stride as he discussed the program last week.
"The thing is, it's a great idea in theory," he said. "If you had eight hours' worth of mail to deliver each day it would be perfect, but it rarely works that way."
Vann referred to cases when letter carriers split the route of an absentee or when holidays create a backlog of mail.
The Postal Service makes time allowances when carriers cover for others, said Lloyd G. Noles, manager of customer service at the Gulfwinds branch in St. Petersburg. Noles' station was one of three Postal Service branches selected in the August 2000 pilot program.
"I love the program," he said. "It gives us tracking data just like UPS or FedEx. On a daily basis we can track consistent delivery time that lets us know where we need to make adjustments."
The program raises concerns with O.D. Elliott, president of the Suncoast branch of the letter carriers union, which serves most of Pinellas County and an area just south of the Sunshine Skyway bridge. He said the lasers that scan the bar code were introduced a few years ago to track registered letters. The scanners came with a warning: Avoid eye contact with the beam.
"There's a concern that it may reflect in the eyes," he said. "There could be a problem if there are people on the other side of the object that's being scanned."
Elliott is not concerned about the surveillance aspect of the program that is referred to as "Managed Service Points."
"I don't believe privacy is an issue," he said. "Management has the right to follow you all day on the street if they want to."
Andrew Schulman is not so cozy with the concept of employee monitoring. Schulman is the chief researcher on the Workplace Surveillance Project for the Privacy Foundation based in Denver.
The post office program does not strike Schulman as a cause for alarm, considering that many employers can track the exact location of employees, their phone calls and e-mail.
"It's worrisome that it's so cheap and easy to do monitoring now," he said. "In any individual case it may make sense, but you add it all up and you have sensors everywhere. You end up with a result that no one would want."
The program addresses customer satisfaction at a time when members of the U.S. House of Representatives are hearing the case for Postal Service reform.
The postal headquarters predicted a $2-million to $3-million loss for 2001, said U.S. Rep. Dan Burton, R-Ind., during the first hearing in April.
The Postal Service, which placed a $1-billion freeze on capital improvements to facilities this year, is determined to improve service.
"Our competitors have been tracking street and carrier delivery for years," Sawtelle said. "We're going to use that same kind of efficiency to increase satisfaction."
Laws passed in 1970 tie the Postal Service's hands when it comes to doling out discounts to clients that send mass quantities of packages. One such client is the federal government, which awards expedited mail contracts to courier services other than the Postal Service, said Drew Von Bergen, spokesman of the National Association of Letter Carriers.
Elliott, president of the local letter carriers union, said carriers are complaining about the program, but he dismissed it as a natural reaction to change.
"We're in favor of it," Von Bergen said, "as long as it doesn't impinge unjustly on the rights of our members."