Of all postal employees, mail carriers are probably the most familiar to the general public. They can be seen almost every day delivering and collecting mail along their routes at businesses and private residences.
Most mail carriers begin their workday early in the morning, some as early as 4:00 A.M. In large cities, they report to the post office or substation in which they work, where they arrange the mail to be delivered. They do their sorting with "mail cases" or upright boxes that are labeled with names of streets, house numbers, or buildings. Casing mail is very repetitive, but the work has been made easier and less time-consuming through automation.
Mail carriers must also prepare and place in their route cases reminders for special mail, such as registered letters or packages, C.O.D. (collect on delivery) mail, and insured mail. These all involve special procedures such as obtaining signatures from recipients or collecting money. Carriers must also sign for any mail they take on their routes that is C.O.D. or has postage due on it.
Carriers make up relay bundles that trucks will carry and place in mail depositories along the carriers' routes for them to pick up during the day. Many mail carriers today drive "mailsters," which are small motor vehicles with space in the back for storing bundles of mail. This eliminates some of the need for trucks to drop off relay bundles. Some carriers who walk their routes use a push-type mail cart that enables them to carry a great deal of mail at one time. Others use large leather bags carried over the shoulder, which limits the loads to 35 pounds and necessitates using the relay system.
Deliveries in rural districts are usually made by motor vehicle. Carriers place mail in the mail boxes of each residence and pick up any outgoing mail that customers have placed in the boxes. Because a regular post office may be many miles away, these carriers may also sell stamps and money orders, process insured or registered mail, and accept parcel post for mailing. These carriers may cover routes of 100 miles or more in a single day.
Parcel post mail carriers usually drive trucks and deliver package mail that is not handled by the carrier working a route on foot. The parcels are sorted by postal clerks and package sorters and put into sacks for delivery along a route.
Other types of carriers drive motor vehicles, delivering mail from a main post office building to substations and picking up outgoing mail from the substation to be sorted in the main post office. Many of these carriers are found in large metropolitan and city operations. Their duties often include delivering the relay mail bundles to storage boxes for the carriers.
Supervisors of both rural and city mail carriers are responsible for scheduling carriers' work hours, ensuring the efficiency of their routes, and investigating and resolving any complaints the public makes about a carrier's performance.
Substitute carriers usually have a combination of duties. They may deliver mail on foot or with a push-cart for part of the day and finish out their day by driving mail trucks and collecting mail from street letter boxes. They may also fill in on other types of route work when employees are sick or on vacation. In addition they can assist regular carriers when the mail load is exceptionally heavy, such as during the Christmas holidays.
All USPS mail carriers must be able to answer the public's questions regarding postal regulations and service and to provide postal forms when requested. Many participate in neighborhood service programs, checking on elderly people or notifying police of any suspicious activities they encounter. Carriers spend most of their working hours outdoors.
In the past 20 years, private delivery companies have been making inroads into the services historically carried out by the USPS. Three major competitors to the U.S. Postal Service—FedEx, United Parcel Service, and DHL—developed systems for same-day, overnight, and two-day package and document delivery. Other, smaller companies also provide overnight and package delivery services in the United States and abroad. Couriers, package drivers, and messengers work for these private companies, delivering tens of millions of packages each day.