The longer route: Letter carrier, 72, among growing number in U.S. working well past 65

August 31, 2013

He’s on County Road 1680 moving like a blacktailed jack rabbit under the big-bowl Oklahoma sky, a tiny dot in his Ford Ranger out on the edge of the world when the flying red stinger ants show up.

Other on-the-job nuisances include hail, mud, diamondback rattlers, wild boars, coyotes, bobcats, porcupines and skunks. Jim Ed Bull keeps on driving.

Fifty, 55, 60 mph. Turning up a driveway, he reaches out the window and, snap, the mailbox opens. Bull is a letter carrier with the longest postal route in the United States, 187.6 miles across some of the loneliest territory in the country. He’s 72 and part of the fastest-growing segment of the U.S. labor force — those who work past their 65th birthdays.

Into the mailbox goes the weekly Southwest Oklahoma Shopper and a letter from Stockmans Bank, and, slam, the door shuts tight. Snap-and-slam wasn’t always the soundtrack of Bull’s workday. He was a high school principal, coach and referee who retired in the late ’90s only to come back to a payroll. Now he’s one of 7.2 million Americans who were 65 or older and employed last year, a 67 percent jump from 10 years before.

They work longer hours and earn more than they did a decade ago. Fifty-eight percent are full-time, compared with 52 percent in 2002, and their median weekly pay has gone up to $825 from $502. In the second quarter, government data show, Bull and his peers made $49 more a week than all workers 16 and older.


Jim Ed Bull, a U.S. Postal Service letter carrier, brings mail to his truck in Mangum, Okla. Bull, a retired high school principal at 72, is responsible for the longest mail route in the U.S. and is part of the fastest-growing segment of the U.S. labor force -- those who work past their 65th birthdays. (Tom Moroney/Bloomberg)

Retirement is rarely the discrete here’s-your-gold-watch event it once was. With pensions ever more scarce, millions face perpetual employment.

“It’s becoming the norm,” says Kevin Cahill, research economist at Boston College’s Sloan Center on Aging and Work.

Reasons for staying in the workforce cover the spectrum in the post-recession economy. Some need the money to live day to day. Some want to build up battered 401(k) plans or put more away for the kids. Some find that the daily activity organizes their lives, keeping them connected and useful.

For Bull, who has a pension and Social Security and a $62,000 annual salary, it’s mostly about family. With what his wife, Susan, a second-grade teacher, makes, they earn six figures. He says his working helps them maintain a comfortable lifestyle and allows him to save to leave something substantial for Susan, who’s 17 years his junior, and his grandchildren.

Eddie Beard, 75, is a fellow rural letter carrier whose route is a mere 147 miles. A Church of Christ preacher, he came to the U.S. Postal Service 18 years ago for the retirement plan “because the clergy doesn’t have one.”

Lawyer Mike Henry, 73, a customer on Bull’s route, still goes to the office because he declared bankruptcy in 1987 after losing his Texas real estate investments when crude oil prices plunged. “I need the money,” Henry says. He figures he’ll work “until I die.”

Like Bull and Beard, he harbors no resentment. “It keeps me alive and alert, and it gives me something to do where I can help folks,” says Henry, who estimates half his legal work these days is pro bono. “If I won the lottery, I wouldn’t quit.”

Longevity’s downside

The longevity has a downside. Seniors are, in some cases, “crowding out” younger unemployed workers waiting for spots to open, says economist Gary Burtless of the Brookings Institution.

They’ve expressed frustration to Jeanette Dwyer, president of the National Rural Letter Carriers’ Association, a union with more than 100,000 members, including Bull. “The economy has had an effect of everybody staying longer in their current jobs,” she says.

Postmaster Jeff Real at Bull’s home office in Mangum says every one of his rural drivers has a backup, and they wait six or seven years to get their own routes.

With military veterans and retirees from first jobs in the mix, the Postal Service abounds with gray hairs. Of 615,360 employees, agency data show, 46 percent are over 50. Five thousand postal employees are 70 or older, and 695 of those are Bull’s age, 72. Another 223 are over 80.

Bull’s improbable run stretches across the southern reaches of the Great Plains through and around the tiny towns of Duke and Eldorado, where the emptiness makes the stars, the moon, the edge of a riverbed appear larger than life.

The land moves north from the Red River, quiet and flat, its dusky iron-rich earth cracked and blistered by two years of drought. Wells dried up and wheat folded over and died.

Farmers recall with some anxiety stories from their parents about the 1930s Dust Bowl, when the sky turned black. John Steinbeck found his characters here for “The Grapes of Wrath” — left with nothing, “hungry and restless, restless as ants.”

The county where Bull picks up his mail, Greer, and where he mostly delivers, Jackson, remain fiery red on the U.S. Drought Monitor map — each of them 4 on a scale of 5.

“There wasn’t much good that’s come out of there this year or the last four or five,” says Mike Schulte, who heads the Oklahoma Wheat Commission, a state agency. “You’ve just got to be a really strong person to make it.”

In 36 years with three school districts, Bull counts his sick days on one hand — five — and tallies just as many in 13 years as a carrier, first as a substitute in 2000 and then as a full-timer in 2007. The temperatures he works in can swing 120 degrees, from 115 in the summer to below zero in the winter’s wind.

Five years ago, the snow and ice were so deep on the road that his power steering gave out. He zigged and zagged and tore through an electric fence, leaving a hole for 50 head of cattle to roam free. He pushed on the gas, nudging the truck out of trouble and to the nearest farm for help.

“You just never know what might happen,” Bull says over rib-eye and potato salad at his favorite steakhouse.

Bull stands at 6-foot-3, 215 pounds. His resting pulse is 43. He had his left knee replaced in 2009. He takes one prescription drug, Lisinopril, to regulate his blood pressure. A Southern Baptist, he doesn’t smoke or drink, though he does favor an occasional plate of greasy ribs.

His facial features are long and angular and his complexion ruddy. In summer, he wears sneakers, dungaree shorts and a red T-shirt with a “Postal Worker” icon nestled over an eagle, his only identifier. (His truck has no lettering, because “they already know it’s me coming.”)

Still, by the end of the week, Bull is tuckered out. He says he hopes to keep going for another three years, if his health holds up. Daily, he confronts the aches, pains and muscle pulls of sitting for hours, steering with one hand and snapping open mailboxes with the other.

“I’m kind of weary by Friday,” he says. “But then I recuperate on the weekend.”

How does he do that? “I mow my lawn.”

Every day starts with as many as 50 push-ups and 50 sit-ups. Home is a neat and modern three bedrooms in red brick at the end of a suburban development in Altus, big enough for the two grandchildren to spend the night.

He and his wife bought the house four years ago for $215,000. He has one son from his previous marriage; she has a son and daughter from hers. They met through her father, a preacher who thought enough of Bull to pass him his daughter’s number after Bull saw her sing at a church fellowship meeting.

“We looked at each other, and something just clicked,” he recalls.

By 7 a.m. each day, Bull is at the McDonald’s inside the Wal-Mart near home. He checks his watch as he chews a bacon-egg-and-cheese biscuit. A dab or two of jelly makes it onto the biscuit. The rest he squeezes from two foil packets into his mouth, like astronaut food.

Mailman quicksand

Bill Berry, a regular, walks over. “Watch that mud today, Jim Ed,” the retired firefighter says. The rain has turned more than a few of Bull’s paths into mailman quicksand, and once he had to be pulled out by a tractor. “The dust and the mud, those are my enemies,” he says.

He warms his coffee with a half refill and heads for the parking lot. It’s 16 miles through long stretches of pastureland to the post office in Mangum, in the old courthouse. His route was redrawn last year in the agency’s effort to reduce costs and offset debt.

In Mangum, with the empty streets and abandoned storefronts, Bull hurries to his work station, metal cabinets with myriad slots, one cabinet each for Duke, population 424, and Eldorado, 446.

By 9:45, he’s separated the letters into five bundles about the size of bread loaves but a lot heavier. He’s ready to leave with the bundles, 100 weekly shoppers and eight packages when another carrier walks over with a stack that was inadvertently sent to his pile.

“Dad gummit,” Bull says.

At 10:04, he pulls up to the drive-through window at his first stop, the Shop Around the Corner, and passes the mail to the woman at the cash register. In turn, he’s handed a large plastic-foam cup of ice cubes that will sit on the truck floor and melt, generating his cold drinking water.

“Here we go,” he says. The Postal Service doesn’t supply rural carriers with vehicles, and Bull eschews modifications to his truck or special equipment. Instead, he sits between the two front seats, his body in the middle of the cab. His left hand holds the steering wheel, his left foot operates the gas and brake, and his long right arm inserts the mail.

Every rural route is assessed a time for completion. Using a formula based on volume of mail and number of stops — he has 198 — postal inspectors who followed Bull around for two weeks decided the route, including the sorting of mail, or “casing,” could be done in 9.4 hours. That number determines his salary.

Bull opens a brown mailbox door twisted and bent. Inside is a week’s worth of bills and notices. Slam.

“Husband’s in jail,” he says in explaining the backup. When it comes to his customers, there’s not a lot Bull doesn’t know or see. One man has appeared in his front yard on three separate occasions this summer totally naked. “I don’t want to get too close,” Bull says.

By 11:30, he’s made about 90 stops and heads for Eldorado along some of his longest stretches without a single delivery. Past untamed mesquite, cottonwood, bois d’arcs and gray wooden windmills that bring up water for the cattle, he flies.

Obstacles and the sharp road gravel force an average of one flat tire a week, two brake jobs a year and the purchase of a reliable used truck every four. The Postal Service pays 73 cents a mile for maintenance and gasoline, a sum Bull says barely covers costs.

At one early stop, Audy Edwards is in his front yard. “How much you get here in Eldorado, Audy?” Bull calls out.

“We had 2.55 inches last night,” Edwards says, referencing a rain gauge mounted on the back of the box. “Another .30 this morning.”

Bull follows a slow-moving black car. “I hate to drive behind these farmers,” he grumbles.

Minutes after noon, Bull pulls a plastic bag from behind his seat with a bagged assortment of Slim Jim beef sticks, raisins, energy bars and peanut-butter-and-crackers. He settles on the raisins and points the truck to more open spaces.

“I’ll eat when I get home,” he says of the meager lunch fare. He leans over to turn on the AM radio. Talk-show host Sean Hannity on 1290 AM declares George Zimmerman, acquitted in the shooting of Trayvon Martin, “had no duty to retreat.”

Bull likes Hannity. Financial planners who host shows, too. “I hang on their every word,” he says with a grin. “You couldn’t say I’m worried. I just want to feel secure and not worry about my family.”

Bull grips the wheel and looks toward the horizon. There’s just one stop left. A woman who lives alone gets the shopper. Snap, slam. He drives back to Mangum to fill out his timecard.

The full version of this Bloomberg article appeared on bloomberg.com.

58%

of workers 65 or older work full time compared with 52 percent in 2002.

$825

Meanwhile, their median weekly pay has increased to $825 from $502.

$49

These workers made $49 more a week in the second quarter than all workers 16 and older, according to government data.

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