Deliver mail according to the instructions or known desire of the addressee. Otherwise, deliver as addressed if the addressee has not moved. Make inquiry, if necessary, and return the mail to the post office if still in doubt. - Section 131.35, U.S. Postal Service manual
By TOM ZUCCO, Times Staff Writer
Published November 11, 2005
[Times photo: Cherie Diez]
Michael FitzGerald delivers mail in St. Pete Beach. FitzGerald is working while his firing is appealed.
ST. PETERSBURG - They found out they were being fired by letters that were never delivered.
Instead, seven veteran St. Petersburg mail carriers were summoned to the station manager's office through a side entrance. As an armed postal inspector stood by, the letters were read to them.
They were losing their jobs, they learned that day in September, for failing to deliver bulk mail advertising to a handful of customers on their routes who had specifically asked them not to.
Citing improper conduct, the Postal Service alleges the carriers didn't perform their duties. The companies that produce bulk mail had paid to have it delivered to every address, the Postal Service maintains, and the St. Pete Seven didn't do that.
The carriers don't dispute that.
But they were not trying to shirk their duty, they say. They were only doing what their customers had asked them to do.
Those customers side with their carriers.
"Who is the post office working for - the customers or the advertising industry?" asked one of them, Ed Vaughan, a St. Pete Beach condominium resident.
The case of the seven carriers brings to light a larger issue of whether Postal Service customers who do not want to receive bulk mail can put themselves on something akin to the national do-not-call list for phone solicitations.
The stakes are high. According to the Direct Marketing Association, companies from banks to grocery stores to pizza delivery services will spend about $31-billion in noncatalog direct mail advertising this year.
That's money the Postal Service depends on. Close to a third of the Postal Service's annual revenue comes from bulk mail.
The seven carriers - Tanya Gillespie, Michael FitzGerald, Candace Lester, Richard Crowder, John Hyers, Jody Vaccaro and Buddy Venuti - work in and around southwest St. Petersburg and represent more than 150 years of service. They all have clean records, including letters of appreciation.
Most are still working while their cases are being appealed through their union.
FitzGerald, who has spent nearly 19 years with the Postal Service, explained that five or six of the 560 customers on his St. Pete Beach route asked him not to stuff their mailboxes with unwanted ads.
Thinking he was simply obeying their wishes, he didn't.
A single parent whose 20-year-old son is a Marine serving in Iraq, FitzGerald said his supervisors accused him of failing to deliver the mail and throwing mail away.
"We have to deliver the mail," he said. "But according to the manual, we're supposed to deliver mail according to the desires of the customer."
As for throwing mail away, "Once the customers refuse this bulk mail," FitzGerald said, "it becomes undeliverable bulk business mail, and we disposed of it in the undeliverable bulk mail bin at the post office."
FitzGerald called what he did a courtesy to his customers, and said he extended it only to the people on his route who specifically asked him to do it. And it involved only bulk mail - the kind that fill the wastebasket next to the rows of mailboxes inside the Point Pass-a-Grille condominium.
"I have no objection to direct mail advertising," said Vaughan, who is secretary/treasurer of the condo association. "But I'm the one who has to dump that wastebasket out every day. The one next to the mailboxes. It seems like such a waste."
Although direct mail companies are not mandated by law to remove anyone's name from their lists, Postal Service spokesman Gary Sawtelle said it would make good business sense for the companies not to send mail to someone who doesn't want it.
The final option is to refuse bulk mail at the time it is delivered by writing "Refused" on it and returning it.
But again, there is no guarantee it will stop.
For those who worry their mailboxes will overflow with bulk mail while they're away, Sawtelle said the post office will hold mail for a customer for up to 30 days.
There is no question, Sawtelle said, that the Postal Service depends on bulk mail.
"Our revenue doesn't come from the government or from tax revenues," he said. "It comes from the people who put postage on mail."
And the responsibility of stopping mail from being delivered falls squarely on the customers.
"It's your choice, ultimately," Sawtelle added. "There are ways to minimize the amount of bulk mail you get.
"But that is not our job. Our job is to deliver the mail."
And yet to the people who have come to regard their letter carrier as a friend, it's not that simple. Several argue that if the carriers must be punished, a warning would do.
Jenny Erdman, vice president of the Point Pass-a-Grille condo association and one of Vaccaro's customers, said she and many others consider their carriers "like family members who were just doing something for us as a favor.
"But I can see the other side."
That's because Erdman used to work for Direct Mail Systems Inc., a Clearwater-based printing and direct marketing company. Like other direct mail companies, it employs printers, designers, graphic artists and many other workers.
Then there are the advertisers themselves. According to the Postal Service, nearly 80,000 small businesses depend almost exclusively on direct mail, as do many nonprofit organizations. What's more, the Direct Marketing Association says direct mail will account for nearly a third of all sales in the United States this year.
Once a staple of the mail, the handwritten personal letter seems almost a relic. On average, consumers receive about 25 pieces of mail per week, more than half of it bulk mail.
"People have a right to say whether they want to receive bulk mail or not," Erdman said. "And it shouldn't be that difficult for us to stop it.
"If nothing else, think of the huge waste of paper."
BLOCKING BULK MAIL
Anyone wishing to block at least some bulk mail from being delivered can write Mail Preference Service, Direct Marketing Association, P.O. Box 9008, Farmingdale, N.Y. 11735-9008, or visit www.the-dma.org