Ten Miles Square

March/ April 2013 Mail Models

How letter carriers might save your grandma.

By Moshe Z. Marvit and Jason Bacasa

On Monday, July 30, 2012, Long Island letter carrier Mario Serrano was delivering mail when he noticed something wrong. Serrano was in front of a house along his route occupied by a single eighty-seven-year-old woman whom he checked in on six days a week. He discovered mail in the box from Saturday and, according to him, “that’s a red flag.” He heard running water, and when he rang the doorbell he heard screams for help. Serrano opened the window, entered the house, and found her stuck between her bathtub and her toilet, where she had fallen on Saturday and remained unable to get up for two days. Serrano called the police and waited with her until they arrived.

In the past few years, stories abound of letter carriers who save lives. There was the Cleveland letter carrier who saved a ninety-one-year-old man’s life after noticing piled-up mail and no footprints in the snow; a Houston letter carrier who saved two children from a burning home; an Akron letter carrier who saved a woman who was trapped for six days in her bedroom after an ulcer erupted; a Rye Brook letter carrier who rescued an elderly couple from a burning home; an Idaho mailman who saved a church after the gas had been left on for over twelve hours; and many others.

These stories of letter carriers checking in on elderly or sick residents, or helping people whose lives are in danger, occur every day across the country. In part, this is the result of the Carrier Alert program, which has been run jointly by the Postal Service and the National Association of Letter Carriers (NALC) for more than three decades. To sign up, all you need to do is notify your letter carrier, and he or she will make a special point of checking in on you and your property. The program’s literature describes the signs of trouble that letter carriers keep an eye out for, such as “lights burning in midday, pet dogs crying, drawn draperies, or no tracks in the snow.”

In a sense, we are all enrolled in the national carrier program, because letter carriers often act if they see something abnormal. In fact, the Postal Service encourages it and considers it part of the services they offer, says Phil Dine, a spokesman for NALC.

Historically, it is not uncommon for the Postal Service to perform services of public good. Pam Donato, community and membership outreach coordinator for NALC, explains that prior to instituting the current program letter carriers used to do social service checks in rural communities, acting as providers of low-level health care. For example, mailmen would weigh children for parents concerned that their children were not well nourished, and sometimes even transport infants and toddlers in their mail sacks upon request.

According to mailman Michael Plaskon, who also serves as the vice president of NALC in Pittsburgh, letter carriers these days remain attuned to the habits of residents, and notice when something is off. “When carriers get a route, they become part of a community; they are the eyes and ears of that community. We’re in the same place at the same time six days a week. We realize when something’s not right. It’s part of our duty to help.” Charlie Rose, a mailman in Athens, Ohio, who has detected and reported sixteen gas leaks while on his route, echoed this sentiment, explaining, “We’re not only letter carriers. We’re also like a safety net of service.”

In 2011, the last year for which figures are publicly available, the Postal Service recognized 331 “national employee heroes.” These are individuals who “risk their own safety to save the lives of the customers they serve.” According to Plaskon, the real number of letter carriers that save people’s lives while on their route is much higher than the recognized “national heroes.” “A lot of people don’t want publicity. I’ve known carriers who save residents without telling others. We don’t do it for the publicity; we do it because we’re concerned.” Donato explains that these stories are the ones where residents have taken it upon themselves to write a letter to the manager of their local post office or contact the local news.

Now, as the Postal Service has proposed discontinuing Saturday mail delivery in order to save $2 billion annually, these ancillary services will suffer. Straightforwardly, a 17 percent reduction in the number of visits letter carriers make could lead to a 17 percent reduction in the number of lives they save, or about fifty-five deaths a year. And the increased mortality could well be greater. As Plaskon explains, the program will become far less efficient as the number of delivery days is reduced and the gaps between service are increased. An elderly lady who falls in the bathtub could have to wait from Friday to Monday before being discovered.

Though it may seem impossible to assess the value on the number of lives saved annually by letter carriers, it is not, in fact, hard to do. Federal agencies routinely use what’s known as the “value per statistical life,” or VSL, to calculate the costs and benefits of saving a life in a variety of circumstances. Currently, agencies place the value of a statistical life in a range between $6 million and $12 million, meaning that a conservative estimate of the value of the lives saved by the Postal Service on Saturdays alone is approximately half a billion dollars annually. If the number of individuals saved is much higher, as suggested by some, then that number may run into the billions.

For Pam Donato, it’s more than a numbers game. Because most people are off work and school on Saturday, she says, it’s the day when letter carriers are most likely to see and talk with the residents on their route. “I fear that not being there on Saturday will distance the family and household from us—they won’t see us,” Donato said. “If they don’t see us, and we don’t see them, we have lost the magical connection of one human being in the air space of another.”

Beyond situations where lives are saved, letter carriers also provide human contact to many who receive no other human contact. As America is increasingly becoming an older society, the connections that letter carriers provide will become even more important. Michael Plaskon told of how, when he first started as a letter carrier, he always had biscuits for dogs, and lollipops and rubber bands for kids. (“I quickly learned not to give out rubber bands to the kids because they shoot you with them,” he said.) Plaskon also befriended a ninety-year-old woman on his route, and soon began to time his lunch hour so he could eat with her. “She lived alone, and I was the bright spot of her day,” he said. “When I had a child, I took my newborn baby to see her on my day off.”

Rick Onder, a letter carrier in Pittsburgh, described an elderly woman on his route whom he has helped multiple times after she’s fallen and not been able to get back up. One time she called him at work in the early morning to ask for help, and he got in his truck and acted as a first responder. In the media these acts are often interpreted as acts of a good Samaritan who happens to be a letter carrier. But officials and letter carriers emphasize that the Postal Service encourages letter carriers to go beyond in helping residents, creating a culture where letter carriers see these deeds as part of their duty.

In an increasingly technological world, the Postal Service upholds one of the more profound promises of this age: for forty-six cents, an actual human being will deliver a real, physical thing to anywhere in the United States, even in expanses and vistas that broadband cannot yet reach. And, as a free service, this person will keep an eye on your home, provide human contact to an ailing parent, and act if something seems wrong. The Postal Service isn’t any more obsolete than the U.S. Constitution, which enshrines it as a foundational institution of American life—including, let us hope, on Saturdays.

Moshe Z. Marvit and Jason Bacasa . Mr. Marvit is a fellow with the Century Foundation and the coauthor (with Richard Kahlenberg) of the book Why Labor Organizing Should Be a Civil Right. Mr. Bacasa is a freelance writer and creative director for Unionosity.


  • whoyagonnacall on March 04, 2013 12:04 PM:

    silly article. are the authors seriously saying that the decision on whether to end saturday delivery, or any other major corporate decision, should come down to the fact that the u.s. postal employees would then be 'less avialable' to possibly save a life? yes, postal carriers do save lives by finding people in distress from falls, accidents, etc as they go along their daily routes. but connecting this to the business decision of 6 day a week service is just silly.

  • lettercarrier on March 04, 2013 1:46 PM:

    Nothing silly about it. Think what the writers are saying is that we are the eyes and ears of communities. This is another SERVICE provided at no cost to communities. What people are forgetting is that the USPS not only has this prefunding issue to deal with we also can't.raise rates and we are required to break even. This was never meant to be profitable. We are a service.

  • Sam Adams on March 04, 2013 2:26 PM:

    This is a silly argument, plain and simple. The USPS is losing millions and millions of dollars. It is FOR THE MOST PART an outdated service. Yes, it still serves a purpose, but not NEARLY like it did prior to the internet. To deny this is just plain ignorance, nothing more, nothing less. IT IS CALLED ADAPTING WITH THE TIMES. Businesses all throughout the world have had to learn to deal with changing times, the USPS should be NO DIFFERENT. All this outcry about saving jobs...At whose expense??? THE TAXPAYERS. So in the end, saving jobs over a losing proposition is doing NOTHING to better our economy. I'm not in favor of seeing ANYONE lose his or her job...but at some point, IT IS TIME TO FACE REALITY.

  • Emily on March 04, 2013 5:43 PM:

    It is more silly to suggest that the Postal Service (a government service) should determine all policy based solely on "business decisions" than it is to suggest that the government should consider all services provided by the Postal Service (and the true cost of ending them) before reducing them.

  • Robert steffes on March 04, 2013 6:39 PM:

    The second biggest employer in this country is the USPS. It takes no tax money. If it was allowed to compete without congressional interference, like forcing it to prefund it's employee healthcare or hobbling it via a vis the privately owned delivery services, it would not be running these deficits. If voting was run through the mails, it would both increase participation and provide the service with a big revenue stream. It amazes me that republicans are all for preserving jobs making weapons but oppose work that binds the nation together.

  • Andre on March 05, 2013 1:52 AM:

    The mailman only comes at most once a day, meaning a large percentage of victims who choose to depend on him will be dead before getting help (even if we had 7-day delivery). Unfortunately, we don't know what that number is, since it seems no one is interested in checking. Having something like a cell phone or Life Alert would allow them to get help immediately and save far more lives.

  • ex-carrier on March 05, 2013 12:45 PM:

    to Sam Adams, It is time that you faced reality and do your own research. You will find that whenever the USPS tried to "adapt with the times" Congress,through prodding by private lobbyists (FedEx,UPS,Pitney Bowes,etc)has stymied their proposals. These lobbyists are still at it. Look at the 2006 PAEA and see what a poison pill the USPS was forced to swallow. This law accounts for over 80% of their current borrowing limit.

  • Hugh on March 05, 2013 9:44 PM:

    It may be a silly piece, but sometimes even silly things are true. A few years ago, a post man found my 89 year old cousin sitting in a chair. She told him to drop the mail on the floor next to her. When he finished his rounds, she was still in the chair. He called 911. Turns out, she had suffered a stroke. She suffered serious injury and her recovery was minimal (in part, because she missed the "magic hour" and did not get to the hospital until several hours after the stroke). She lived another 10 months.

  • Captn Jack on March 06, 2013 2:14 PM:

    No, this is not silly. It is something only an idiot would come up with. Few deliveries are at the home- box on post and central delivery makes the majority of deliveries. Anyone wanting a baby sitter for grandma can hire one of the people Obie put out of work.

  • Tina on March 07, 2013 12:18 PM:

    The fact remains that the postal service is in financial trouble. An extreme result of this could be no service at all, therefore cutting one day, Saturday, is surely more favorable than losing the whole service.

    There may also be other, more cost-effective ways of having a life-saving service, rather than letter carriers.

    The article claims a 17 percent reduction in the number of visits letter carriers make could lead to a 17 percent reduction in the number of lives they save. Mathematically this causal link is far-fetched and requires you to assume a whole slew of things, for example how deaths are distributed across the week, whether these people may have been saved by someone else later that day etc.

  • RJM-Buffalo on March 11, 2013 12:41 AM:

    Sam Aaams and a couple others have no clue about the real facts behind yet another manufactured crisis. No taxes go to the Postal Service and the USPS has done a remarkable job of adapting to the 21st century considering all the shackles placed on it by Congress, such as stealing all the Postal Service's money and then wondering why there are financial problems. The USPS has the most incredible network in the world. That's why UPS and FEDEX have USPS deliver many of their parcels. If the USPS is dismantled, prices at UPS, etc. will soar. Letter Carriers are the most direct physical ambassadors from the federal government to the people and it should stay that way at least 6 days per week.

  • GlennDL on March 21, 2013 12:17 PM:

    @ Captn Jack: Where do you live? " Few deliveries are at the home- box" ???? Overstating a ridiculous assumption aren't you.
    @ whoyagonnacall: The gist of the article is highlighting one of many services and benefits of having a Postal Service, not that saving lives is the only reason to continue it.
    @ Sam Adams: "...it still serves a purpose, but not NEARLY like it did prior to the internet. To deny this is just plain ignorance, nothing more, nothing less..." Check the figures on how much the internet relies on shipping, or politicians and marketing relies on high volume advertising mail, the prescription industry relies on postal delivery (to every household 6 days a week,)or how much FedEx and UPS rely on the Postal Service, which means directly and indirectly EBAY, Amazon, MedCo, ExpressScripts and many other online companies rely on the Post Office. Not to mention the people receiving those good. "ignorance, nothing more, nothing less" is not knowing the facts.
    @ Sam Adams: "...At whose expense??? THE TAXPAYERS. ..." Fact: The Postal Service operates on its own revenues generated from its services. No taxpayer money is budgeted for the Postal Service.
    Fact: While the downturn in the economy would have led to losses over a few years it would have been part of the cyclical economy and the Postal Service would return into the black (where it has spent most of the past 30 years) as the economy improved
    @everyone: The Postal Service would not have been hurt by the internet anymore than they were by the advent of the Railroad, telegraph, Airplane, telephone, Interstate Highway system, Fax machine etc., and it could adapt now if not for one thing, The The Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act of 2006 (PAEA)(It may be slow to adapt but it always has adapted.).
    A piece of right-wing legislation designed to gut the postal service to make the ideal of postal privatization palpable to the public. The passage of this act led to the severe financial bleeding before the economy went bad. Without it the losses would have been millions over a year or two not billions over most years since 2006.
    Congress, not the internet, broke the postal service. The internet has increased revenues in packaging. Email has not replaced letter writing (which was already on the decline) but that is changing. Initially probably 90 percent of emails is chit chat and spam. The impact of email has probably replaced phone usage more than personal correspondence, and just like the phone industry adapted the postal service can adapt. The problem is Congress broke it and is resistant to fixing what they broke: The PAEA which forces the Postal Service to set aside gross revenues, not net, to pre-fund 75 years of benefits, benefits for postal workers who aren't yet hired, and who aren't yet born!

  • wow this is silly on May 27, 2013 4:59 PM:

    this is absolutely ridiculous. you are seriously saying when you state "they should be recognized heros" that we should esteem letter carriers as some life savers over the army, police man, firefighters, etc. who ACTUALLY save lives?

    ive lived in two houses and been to five states and guess how many lettercarriers actually care about thier route? NONE OF THE ONES I SEE EVERY SINGLE DAY!!!!!