It was the single largest change in Ann Arbor mail delivery history: on April 2, twenty city carrier routes were eliminated. According to Ted Sims, officer in charge of the Ann Arbor post office, ninety-eight of the remaining 105 routes were reconfigured, and many were reassigned to new carriers.

“The decrease in mail volume is prompting streamlining across the board and throughout the country,” says Ed Moore, communications director for the U.S. Postal Service’s Detroit District. Sims says Ann Arbor is one of twelve cities in southeastern Michigan where the service rolled out its automated Flats Sequencing System (FSS).

“Flats” are what the post office calls periodicals like the Observer and third-class mail like catalogs and ad fliers. First-class mail has long arrived at carriers’ stations sorted in the “walk sequence” they follow to deliver it. Until now, though, they’ve spent quite a bit of time each morning sorting their flats, which meant they didn’t start deliveries till 10 or even 11 a.m. With FSS, many flats now also arrive in walk sequence. The automated system isn’t perfect, so carriers still have to do some hand sorting. But Sims says FSS should save enough time to get everyone on their routes by 9:45.

Under the National Association of Letter Carriers contract, almost all the reconfigured routes were put up for bid. That triggered a citywide version of musical chairs, as senior carriers claimed the most desirable jobs and thirty carriers with less seniority were left “unassigned.”

The turnover shocked customers who’d known their carriers for years or even decades. But the brunt of the change fell on the workers. For many, it meant the abrupt end of friendships, relationships, and years-long patterns of literally walking into people’s lives.

In the days after FSS took effect, tension was apparent in carriers’ quickened gaits as they raced across lawns to complete their new, longer routes, and in their voices as they characterized the changes as “a nightmare” and “horrible, just horrible.”

None of the carriers the Observer spoke to was willing to be named. Though the union contract limits layoffs, they said they feared “consequences” if they were quoted saying anything critical, or took too long to complete their routes. Even Pat Carroll, the NALC’s national business agent, was reluctant to speak about the change, because “putting our operational issues in the news doesn’t do anyone any good.” But Carroll does say that he doesn’t think people will lose their jobs–since most post offices are already short staffed, relocating workers is the likeliest scenario. Sims says the unassigned workers will fill in for senior carriers when they are sick or on vacation.

While FSS reduces sorting time, it complicates carriers’ mailbags–they now have two sets of flats (automatic and hand sorted) instead of one. Along with first-class mail, “FSS is a third bundle you have to peel through,” says one. When you multiply that process by the number of houses on a route, time adds up quickly.

Ted Sims is no stranger to added workloads himself–besides running the Ann Arbor post office, he’s postmaster in Jackson. And he’s optimistic that things will get better: “Once we adapt to the changes,” he vows, “we will give better service to our postal patrons.”

The broader context of the changes is the diminishing role of the postal service in American society. Snail mail is being abandoned for faster, greener, and cheaper electronic alternatives. Under the circumstances, says one carrier, “I’m just happy to have a job.”