Low pay, long hours part and parcel of the postal round

Proverbially, ‘posties’ could be relied upon to deliver come rain, snow, sleet or hail. Now they carry an extra weight – the sense that their importance the community isn’t reflected in their pay. Brenna Dempsey reports.

Australia Post has been on the receiving end of some ‘hate mail’ in recent months to do with rising costs and allegedly slower delivery times.

Hard-working posties who signed up to carry packages and envelopes are beginning to show the strain from carrying around this unexpected load of negativity.

Russel Comte, a postie now for two-and-a-half years, explained how it was “a bit of a scandal” that his colleagues and he were expected to work increasingly longer hours for such little pay.

Now in his late 50s, Mr Comte – previously art director for a game design company – became a postal worker because he was seeking a “less stressful, part-time job with few demands”.

While some elements of mail sorting seem “futile”, he enjoys the “folky little community chitchat” that takes place en route which, he said, is “one of the best parts of the day”.

Asked whether posties were undervalued or underappreciated, Mr Comte said, “Everybody loves the postie even when you bring bills to everybody every day” and members of the community often voiced appreciation for the service.

When it came to pay, though, Mr Comte was emphatic: posties were “definitely undervalued”.

A negative perception of Australia Post was “not great” for workers in his position, he said, because “It’s a low-achiever job and then it’s, like, ‘Ha, ha, [‘Let’s make fun of’] the postie” whenever they featured in news stories.

“It’s not a great morale booster and then, when your boss is making 100 times more money than you are, it’s pretty humiliating in a financial sense.”

Mr Comte detailed what he meant by financial humiliation, describing how posties were regularly offered part of someone else’s round when the business was short-staffed.

This extra load comes with extra pay and a $7 bonus and most of them love the extra money. But “there’s other guys, like me, who don’t really want to do it but when it’s there you kind of have to”.

Mr Comte called the pay issue a “nasty little self-perpetuating thing”. The mail carriers taking the extra work don’t complain and “the management don’t hire, so everywhere remains understaffed”.

Because there were deliverers who needed the extra money, he said, they were working 60- to 70-hour weeks just to get a reasonable living wage. But then but “they’re exhausted and their quality of life is pretty poor.

“To me that’s the part that’s wrong: it’s underpaid so it forces people to work extra.”

According to the ethics brochure posted on Australia Post’s website, “respect is the cornerstone of a safe working environment”.

But, with “no union or reasonable [employee] strength”, Mr Comte – who walks the first part of his route pushing a trolley full of mail, before switching to a motorbike – said posties had limited protection in extreme weather.

Whether the temperature was “35 degrees or there’s 20 inches of rain”, the mail must still be delivered.

Mr Comte said there was a “theoretical idea that the post is really important and it’s got to get through”. But “if the post is really important and it’s got to get through, then shouldn’t posties be paid an amount of money that reflects that importance?”

Having made that point, Mr Comte turned to the job’s upside: “In defence of Australia Post, they put safety first and that’s pretty cool.”

Limits exist on how much postal workers may lift and carry; when indoors they use trolleys; and sometimes they take only half their load with them, collecting the rest from depot bins along their route.

“These days, for better or worse, there is no time pressure, they emphasise safety and I think that’s really good.” While out delivering, posties have “permission to pause”, to take a break mid-route to maintain their health and safety.

Mr Comte also explained that each week the posties met to discuss safety. They raised any near misses and devised strategies to avert similar episodes in future.

There were times “I definitely feel unsafe while working” but he felt reassured knowing precautions were set down to limit the chances of an incident happening.

Among these precautions are the “dooky little flags” on the back of the motorbike to increase visibility and the high-vis vest that is part of a postie’s uniform.

Unimpressed by CEOs who bemoaned declining mail volumes and complained that they had to work miracles to keep posties employed, he said: “It’s kind of like a feat tactic, it’s not really true) because “the traffic of mail is relentless. … It doesn’t stop for anything … There’s people there drowning [in work].”

For all the frustrations, Mr Comte still enjoyed his job: “I reckon it’s one of the few things where you just get out … amongst people and everyone’s happy to give you a little small-talk about the day and it’s great.”