Finding and Keeping Quality Mailroom Employees a Challenge

By: Jim Rosenberg

Finding and keeping employees for what are largely low-skill, low-pay positions remain challenges for newspapers’ mailrooms.

In a session coordinated by Dow Jones & Co. production chief Larry Hoffman, the annual America East Newspaper Operations and Technology Conference presented three newspapers’ experiences coping with part- and full-time staffing and temps in union and non-union shops.

When Fred Schuerger joined the Erie (Pa.) Times-News, its mailroom supervisors were union members working on the crews, positions were attained solely by seniority, and there was little automation. Straight-line inserters were used.

In the early 1980s, however, the company negotiated its first non-union supervision, training was begun, and the workload was increasing. By 1985, the first part-time jobs were created – trainee positions that Scheurger called a combination of part-time work and the old apprentice program.

“It also was a nightmare trying schedule full crews,” Schuerger remembered, because most full-timers wouldn’t stick around longer than they had to. Trainees wound up performing jobs ordinarily “assigned to [the] most-qualified personnel.” Not that it helped morale, because the trainees still felt like second-class employees, according to Schuerger, the paper’s packaging and distribution manager.

So by the mid-1990s, along with more automation came several rounds of labor negotiations. Management wanted agreement on a true part-time classification and better relations with the union. The latter came about, said Schuerger, through things like self-evaluation, improved communication and comparatively small things, such as terminology changes that made foremen into shift supervisors and mailers into crew members.

But, he continued, “when we went into negotiations in ’98, we said we’re not going to fill open positions,” relying instead on over-time and temporary workers. “It was 18 months of hell,” Schuerger recalled, adding that temps were not the answer; training proved difficult under the circumstances, and over-staffing was required.

Ultimately, each side won some of what it sought in negotiations. The trainee position yielded to a part-time designation, and part-timers received the same training given to full-time employees – better training, said some, than they’d received at any other part-time work. All were required to have some minimum knowledge of mailroom duties and equipment and demonstrate minimum job capabilities.

At least as important, “for the first time,” said Schuerger, the papers (then with 67,000 weekday morning and evening circulation, 90,000 Sunday) had “true flexibility in scheduling,” even though part-time employees were union members.

The downside for management included higher pay and the provision that no more than 75%% of full-timers could be working – an obstacle during high — volume periods.

At the next negotiating round, in 2003, management decided to share with the union all its research from other newspapers, by name, and encouraged negotiators to call and check the findings.

In the end, starting pay was lowered, with the mix of employees — from students to homemakers to those working a second job — earning $10 per hour, which Schuerger called good pay for the area. The Times-News today circulates 56,462 copies daily, 79,006 Sunday.

“We train the heck out of our employees” and let them know “if they don’t meet expectations,” he said. “We’re in this for the long haul, and we still have fine tuning to do.”

In western Pennsylvania’s other corner, south of Pittsburgh, the Observer Publishing Co., in Washington, publishes the 32,454-circulation (35,103 Sunday) Observer-Reporter daily, The Almanac weekly, various weekly and monthly sections, a local college newspaper and other outside publications. The daily handles an average of 1,255 inserts per week.

In its mailroom, only Distribution Manager Jerry Hickman and three other supervisors are the only full-time employees.

The 34 persons (a third of them women) who work part time are limited to no more than 1,255 hours per year. Shifts at the paper don’t require enough hours of work to justify the additional costs in pay and benefits of hiring full-time employees, according to Hickman. Those who reach the 1,000-hour mark may sign up for a 401(k) plan.

Part-timers in Washington all start at the same hourly rate Raises are awarded after completion of 221, 442, and 884 hours, which Hickman said eliminates resentments that would brew if all received raises at the same time, regardless of which days and how many hours were worked.

The part-time help handles top-sheet set-up and programming, hopper loader feeding (probably their biggest job, according to Hickman), wrapping, copy salvage if needed (usually on Sunday runs), and end-of-shift clean-up. It does not operate the equipment.

“We try to rotate jobs where and when possible,” said Hickman, adding that employees are evaluated annually and offered opportunities to learn other mailroom jobs, which may pay more. Holiday work is rotated among the 34, and Hickman stressed the need for scheduling flexibility to meet workers’ needs.

The Observer-Reporter experiences very little mailroom turn-over, according to Hickman, who said the part-timers range from 19 to 75 years old, have been at the paper for as little as one year or as long as 25 years, and in many cases also work elsewhere.

Washington’s experience generally has been positive. All applications go through human resources for screening, with hiring left to Hickman. Taking on a worker’s family member has proven satisfactory because the new hire knows what to expect of the job, said Hickman. When it comes to hiring, the manager said he’s big on listening to crew members, especially recommendations from his better workers.

With a monthly insert average of approximately 23 million pieces, The Times Herald-Record has a much larger work force in its mailroom. Circulating 79,122 weekday copies and 87,286 Sunday Record copies, the Ottaway Newspapers daily in Middletown, N.Y., employs 15 full-time and about 85 part-time mailroom workers. The latter group can vary from 70 to 120, depending on volume.

Looking after day-to-day operations, two dayside and two nightside supervisors report to the mailroom manager, who reports to Production Manager Fred Stanton. Support services include a full-timer in administration, a systems/zoning technician, receiving chief, a maintenance supervisor and maintenance technician, according to Stanton.

The six machine operators also download information, handle routine machine maintenance, and train others. Others on hand are mailroom assistants and insert feeders (who also help load bundles, keep the area clean, and help out on the commercial side).

Only among part-time nightside workers is turnover a real problem, according to Stanton. And while his team works with human resources on hiring, HR didn’t always understand what was required to fill a part-time feeder’s position, he says, noting different hiring criteria. It proved a lot less difficult to fill those jobs than HR thought it would be.

Prominent positions in the Times Herald-Record mailroom reflect the diversity of the workforce. “We think that’s very important,” said Stanton, pointing out that any part-time feeder can show up the first day, look around, and know there can be a future for anyone, regardless of background. Feeders need to know they can move up to other jobs — including new equipment and commercial work – and thereby become eligible for raises, he added.

Those who work at least 1,000 hours per year are entitled to personal time off and vacation time.

The paper also makes a point of providing a good work environment. Cleaning the dining room, not delaying breaks for the often tedious and repetitive work, supplying a television and microwave, and celebrating accomplishments “keeps the morale going in the department,” said Stanton.

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