Postal clerks are employees of the United States Postal Service (USPS). The equivalent employees at package delivery companies have different titles but perform many of the same duties; at Federal Express they are called service agents, at United Parcel Service, administrative assistants and account executives. Their job duties may be diversified, depending upon the size of the post office or company in which they are employed. Among their duties are working at the public service windows in post offices, answering telephone inquiries, handling packages, and sorting incoming and outgoing mail. About 284,000 postal clerks work for the United States Postal Service.
Postal Clerk Career History
The public mail system had its beginning during the 1400s, when King Edward IV of England established a series of post houses for transporting official mail. The American postal system dates back to 1639, when Richard Fairbanks was granted permission to receive and dispatch mail at his home for the Massachusetts Bay Colony. In 1775, the Second Continental Congress appointed Benjamin Franklin as the first Postmaster General and established the postal system in the American colonies. Franklin completely reorganized the service, making improvements in efficiency, speed, and service.
Since the days of the early American Postal Service, technology has moved forward; the mail system has taken advantage of advances in automation and the speed of the jet age to improve mail delivery. Among the many innovations put in place in recent years are the zip code system; the use of computer sorting, coding, and stamp canceling; and electronic bill paying, stamps, postage, and postmarks.
Postal Clerk Job Description
Postal clerks may perform numerous duties. Those who work in large city post offices, however, usually perform more specialized tasks as either postal window clerks or distribution clerks. In small post offices, clerks may perform both types of work, sorting mail for distribution when business at the customer windows is slow. Wherever they are employed, all postal clerks must know how to sort mail.
Window clerks deal directly with the public at the post office service windows. They sell stamps, accept and weigh parcel post packages, and advise customers regarding parcel post regulations and foreign mail postal fees. They also sell and cash money orders, register mail, rent post office boxes, accept deposits for postal savings accounts, and sell U.S. Savings Bonds. When customers come to the post office to pick up a special package or letter, postal clerks examine the customers’ notices and retrieve the items. In addition, they may answer customer questions about postal rates and rules.
In large city post offices, postal window clerks may specialize in only one or two of these services, such as working a window for money orders, savings bonds, and registered mail only, or working at a window at which only stamps are sold and parcel post accepted. Still other clerks may work general delivery windows. Service agents at Federal Express and administrative assistants and account executives at UPS offer customers assistance and follow up on complaints. Service agents, like postal clerks, also handle packages, so they must do some heavy lifting.
Distribution clerks begin their work when the carriers and delivery drivers who have collected mail bring it back to the post office. The mail from route boxes and mail carriers’ bags is dumped onto long worktables. Usually, the new distribution clerks, also known as mail handlers, perform the first rough separation of the mail into parcel post, paper mail, and letter mail. The mail is then “faced” (placed with stamps down and facing the same direction) so that it can be fed into canceling machines. These machines mark each piece of mail with the date, time, and the city and state in which the post office is located. Once the mail is canceled, it is moved to different work sections where distribution clerks sort the mail according to its destination.
Clerks operating electronic letter-sorting machines push keys corresponding to the zip code of the local post office to which each letter will be delivered. The machine then sends the letter to the proper slot or bin. A growing number of clerks operate optical character readers (OCRs) and bar code sorters, which are machines that can “read” the address and sort a letter according to a code printed on the envelope. According to the USPS, barcodes are now on 88 percent of all letter mail. Other clerks sort odd-sized letters, magazines, and newspapers by hand. Finally, the mail is sent to local post offices for sorting according to delivery route.
Parcel post sorting is performed in a similar manner using conveyor belts, slides, and chutes. These packages require even finer separating and routing before they are sent to local post offices to be delivered by the mail carrier.
Duties similar to those described above are performed by mail clerks in the mailrooms of business firms. With the rise of private mail delivery services, mail clerks are also employed by letter and package delivery services. They take payment, label packages, assist customers in packing, and route mail to the delivery system.
All distribution clerks must be able to perform their duties accurately and efficiently so that the mail may be transported to its correct destination as soon as possible. A related occupation includes transfer clerks, who are responsible for moving the mail being carried to and from train stations and airports with the greatest speed possible.
Postal Clerk Career Requirements
Although a high school education or other special training is not required for most entry-level positions in the post office, the trend in recent years has been to give preference to high school graduates for beginning postal job appointments. Federal Express service agents must be at least 18 years old and possess a high school diploma (or GED); UPS account executives usually have at least some college education. High school classes that will help you in this career include speech, English, computer science, and geography.
Applicants for postal clerk positions must be citizens of the United States or have permanent alien residence status, and they must meet the necessary minimum age requirement (usually 18).
Applicants for USPS postal clerk positions are given a written examination that measures their speed and accuracy at checking names and numbers and their ability to memorize mail distribution procedures. Because jobs in the post office are becoming increasingly automated, applicants for positions as postal clerks must also pass a special examination that includes a machine aptitude test. Information on the testing dates and locations can be found at your local post office.
Those who have scored successfully on the examinations are listed on a register in the order of their scores. When a vacancy occurs, the appointing postal officer chooses one of the top three applicants; the rest of the names remain on the list to be considered for future openings until their eligibility expires, usually two years after the examination date.
Because they must memorize many postal regulations, operational rules, and distribution schemes, people in these positions must have a good memory. They must also be able to read rapidly and accurately, as well as possess good hand-eye coordination. Physical stamina is required for both window and distribution clerks and for service agents. Window clerks must stand for many hours at a time, while distribution clerks and service agents must do a great deal of reaching, lifting, walking, bending, and handling packages and heavy sacks of mail.
Postal clerks need to have an even temperament and a pleasant disposition. They frequently work under pressure to meet time and schedule deadlines, and their work is often performed with others in close physical spaces. Window clerks must have a neat appearance and a pleasant, congenial manner and must be able to deal with all types of people because they are in constant contact with the public.
The majority of postal employees are members of the American Postal Workers Union, National Association of Letter Carriers, National Postal Mail Handlers Union, or National Rural Letter Carriers Association. UPS employees are unionized by the International Brotherhood of Teamsters 1991.
Exploring Postal Clerk Career
If you are interested in one of these positions, you can explore this type of work by seeking part-time work during vacations and summer periods, especially the rush holiday periods when many more jobs become available. Related jobs such as store or office clerk, stock clerk, shipping clerk, or others that require sorting and distributing materials or dealing with the public, might also be beneficial when looking for a position in this area. Also check out the information about postal clerk jobs on the USPS Web site (https://www.usps.com/) and talk to your local post office clerk to get an insider viewpoint.
The approximately 284,000 postal clerks employed by the USPS work in nearly 37,000 post offices throughout the country. Smaller towns and cities employ fewer postal clerks than large metropolitan areas, but every town with a post office has a postal clerk or two. Even very small towns usually have a post office. Commercial delivery companies such as FedEx, UPS, and DHL also employ clerks.
All new USPS employees serve a one-year probationary period during which their job performance and general conduct are closely observed. New employees generally spend a considerable amount of time memorizing postal regulations and operational procedures so that they may become proficient, accurate workers as quickly as possible.
After they have met the general job requirements and received a job appointment, most postal employees begin their careers as substitutes. These substitutes, who are listed on a roster in order of examination scores or by veterans’ preference, may be called in as replacements for regular workers or to supplement the workforce. Vacancies in the permanent staff are filled by promoting the substitutes to regular employment according to seniority. The number of vacancies that occur depends on the size of the post office and the number of employees needed, as well as on the economic growth and population increases in the postal area served.
Package delivery companies prefer to promote employees from within the company, so the best way to enter is to start with an entry-level job as a package sorter. To advance to the level of account executive at UPS, prospective employees should have some college experience or a bachelor’s degree in any field of study.
Although the advancement opportunities for postal clerks are considered better than for mail carriers, they are still rather limited. Large numbers of postal clerks do not move up to higher-level positions; however, as they accrue seniority, individuals may bid (by written request) for more preferable assignments, such as window jobs or other work on the day shift. Assignments to any higher-level positions are based on merit, with consideration given to the employee’s education, experience, training, and aptitude on written examinations.
Employees of UPS who want to advance to the position of account executive will most likely first hold a job as an administrative assistant to gain experience assisting customers.
Most USPS postal employees are paid under the Postal Field Service Compensation Act. Salaries are established for different job grade levels, which depend upon each position’s responsibilities and the amount of knowledge, experience, and skills required.
United States Postal Service clerks earned median annual salaries of $48,310 in 2005, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. Ten percent earned less than $36,970, while the top 10 percent earned $55,020 or more annually.
Fringe benefits for USPS postal clerks and substitute workers are generally the same as for all postal employees. Benefits include 13 days of annual vacation for each of the first three years of service and 20 days each year thereafter until 15 years of service are completed. Thereafter, postal clerks receive 26 days annually. Additional benefits include retirement benefits, disability benefits, health and life insurance, and paid sick leave.
The majority of regular postal employees work eight-hour days and five-day weeks, and the physical surroundings in the post office are usually pleasant. The closeness of the work areas gives employees the opportunity to develop a spirit of cooperation and friendship among themselves.
In most cases the position of window clerk is considered a preferred job among postal workers. The work is often more interesting and varied than that of the distribution clerk, because the job requires continual direct contact with the public, more mental activity, and less physical exertion.
Distribution clerks must do considerable walking, throwing, lifting, and other types of physical labor. Most of their job tasks are repetitive and routine, with little or no contact with the public. Behind the scenes at the post office, these employees work in close contact with each other, often in teams. Their primary challenge is to increase their speed, accuracy, and overall efficiency.
As departments within the Postal Service adopt new automatic and electronic equipment and as greater technological advances are introduced, the work of distribution clerks continues to involve more laborsaving techniques. Working conditions vary with the equipment used, the size of the postal operation, and the clerk’s area of specialization.
In 2001 anthrax was discovered in some of our nation’s mail facilities. The USPS has instituted comprehensive safety and education policies to ensure that its workers, as well as its customers, are protected from anthrax and other hazardous substances.
Postal Clerk Career Outlook
The U.S. Department of Labor (USDL) predicts a decline of employment for postal clerks through 2014 because of technological developments, including automation and electronic sorting and canceling devices, which allow clerks to handle greater volumes of mail. However, many positions will open as workers retire or move to other occupations. Employment should be slightly better for window clerks as the USPS attempts to provide better customer service. The USDL reports that this demand may be offset by the publics’ increasing use of private delivery companies and e-mail and other electronic communications technologies.