Post office stamps itself with another loony idea

August 31, 1994|By MIKE ROYKO

Let us once again consider the strange workings of the bureaucratic mind.

There are many businesses, big and small, that require prompt mail delivery. Some live or die by it.

One such company is Iroquois Industries, on Chicago's South Side, a label printing firm.

It advertises in catalogs, promising 24-hour order filling, and most of its business comes through the mail or by fax.

"We depend on it," says Marvin Gordon, who started the company 40 years ago.

"If mail is delivered late or it is lost, we lose the order. If a customer sends an order and he doesn't get the merchandise promptly, he cancels the order.

"So slow mail or lost mail could ruin us."

Considering the bleak reputation of Chicago's mail delivery, it's surprising that Gordon hasn't been eaten by ulcers or plunged into poverty.

"No, I saw what the problem might be from day one, or at least 10 days after I opened.

"Right in the beginning, I saw how the mail delivery didn't work very well. It was being delivered late or not at all. We found some mail all burned up under a viaduct.

"Well, I couldn't survive that for long, having our employees sitting around all day and twiddling their thumbs until 3 o'clock when the mail and our business orders might or might not arrive."

So to prevent the early collapse of his business, Gordon quickly started using something called "Firm Holdout Service."

This means that as mail is being sorted at his local post office, his mail is put aside and he has it picked up in the morning.

"We pay a messenger service to pick it up at the post office and bring it in every day. We've been doing this, as I said, since we started about 40 years ago."

Currently, it costs Gordon about $4,000 a year in messenger fees to get his mail. So in today's dollars, he's probably spent about $160,000 to get prompt mail delivery over four decades.

"It's a fact of life for us, and we deal with it as best we can," Gordon says. "We can't rely on the human factor for the mail. It's something we live with."

But a few weeks ago, Gordon found himself reading a letter and sputtering as his blood pressure jumped.

The letter was from the Postal Service. It was notifying Gordon that if he wanted to continue picking up his own mail, he would have to pay an annual fee of about $400.

"I couldn't believe it," Gordon says. "It was outrageous. In order to do what we've been doing for 40 years -- delivering our own mail -- we were going to have to pay them for the privilege, as well as still paying for the messenger service. Either that, or we'd have to wait for them to deliver it. Then, of course, we'd be out of business." Gordon's reaction was shared by businessmen all over the United States, since it was a new national policy.

Thousands of businesses that pick up their own mail were being told they would have to pay to do so.

"What is incredible about this," Gordon fumes, "is that we make their job easier. They don't have to deliver our mail because we deliver it ourselves. You would think they would thank us. Instead, they want to charge us."

We called a Postal Service spokesman, and he confirmed what Gordon says. Yes, their job is made easier.

The spokesman said: "Actually, when businesses pick up their own mail, it's less work for us. It lightens the load for the carrier. We can shorten the routes if there's a significant volume of businesses picking up their own mail."

Uh-huh. Then why in the heck are you going to charge them for making your job easier?

"That is under review."

What does that mean?

"Well, it means that a lot of people were angry, so the order was rescinded and it is staying the way it was."

A postal worker who actually handles mail put it another way: "We knew it was a crazy idea in the first place, and the phones started ringing off the hook. Boy, was there a backlash. People were really mad. So they canceled the thing. But I don't know why they'd do something like that in the first place."

Nobody could tell us which bureaucrat's daffy idea it was to charge people for delivering their own mail.

The spokesman said: "It is now a moot point since the status quo remains."

Actually, it shouldn't be a moot point. If we are to survive as a society, we should try to understand the weird thought processes of the bureaucratic noggin.

Somewhere, there is a person with considerable authority who thought something like this: "These businessmen pick up their own mail. That saves us work, which saves us money. So why don't we charge them a fee for saving us work and money?"

A brain that works like that should be thoroughly examined by scientists.

But then it should be disposed of. We wouldn't want a hunchback named Igor stealing it and causing even more trouble.

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