Posted by Susan Esther Barnes
I make it a policy not to write about my work, and I try not to use my blog as a bully pulpit, but I’m frustrated and I just need to get this off my chest.
One of the least favorite things about my job is dealing with the United States Postal Service. No doubt about it, they do a great job delivering regular mail quickly and cheaply. But once you start to use their other services, you’re likely to run into confusion and frustration. Many of the things they do seem to be inconsistent and arbitrary. I could give lots of examples, but below is my current situation.
Earlier this year, we were doing a mailing for a client. Included in the mailing was a Business Reply Mail envelope for the people receiving the mail to respond without having to pay for the postage. The company I work for does this sort of thing several times a year. It’s nothing new to us. We know how it’s supposed to be done.
We could do a mailing and pay the regular Business Reply Mail rate on each piece of mail that is returned, but with a little extra work, we can pay less than half that rate, using the Qualified Business Reply Mail Rate (QBRM). We filled out the requisite form, submitted the requisite samples, and received the approval for the QBRM rate at the end of January.
We sent the mail out on April 15, and the responses started coming back shortly thereafter. Although we had received approval for the QBRM rate more than two months in advance, I discovered the San Mateo USPS office where the mail was being delivered was charging our account the higher unqualified rate.
I tried calling the San Mateo USPS multiple times over several days. Each time I got one of three results: Either I got a fast busy signal, the phone rang without anyone picking it up until it eventually disconnected me, or I got a recorded message that played and then disconnected me.
Frustrated, I wrote a letter to the San Mateo post office, explaining the situation. I mailed it using the USPS. I waited a week or so, but got no response, so I started trying to call the San Mateo post office again, with similar results, until, one day in May, I finally got through to someone.
I spoke with Person A (all people in this story shall remain anonymous), who processed the Business Reply Mail. He denied ever receiving my letter, so I explained the situation to him. He asked me for proof that we had received approval for the QBRM rate. I faxed him the proof that day.
Five days later, they started charging us the correct rate. Unfortunately, by that time we had been charged the incorrect higher rate for a month, and most of the return mail from that project had already been processed at that higher rate. Naturally, I asked for a refund, and Person A agreed to give us the refund. He said it would post on our account on Monday, May 20.
The refund did not appear on our account on Monday. In fact, by Thursday, the refund still had not posted to the account, so I called and spoke with Person B, who said he was the supervisor for Person A. Person B said he would make sure the refund posted to our account and that he would call me by the following Tuesday, May 28 at 10 am to confirm it was done.
I did not receive a follow up call from Person B, nor did the credit appear on our account. I tried calling again several times throughout June, but I had the same trouble as before: either the phone rang with no answer, I got a fast bust signal, or I got a recording that played and then disconnected me. When I did get finally through, I was told Person A was on vacation for a month and would handle it when he got back. Still, we received no refund.
Finally, in July, I sent another letter to the San Mateo Post Office, detailing the situation, including a spreadsheet which calculated the amount of the refund due. Since they had claimed that my previous letter had not been received, I sent this one via USPS, with a return receipt requested.
Eleven days later, although I had received the signed return receipt showing my letter had been delivered, I had not received a response, so I filed a complaint through the online USPS complaint form. A nice lady called and told me that she couldn’t help me through the online system. For this kind of complaint, she said, I had to deal with the local post office directly. I told her my trouble contacting them, and she said she would call them to ask them to get in touch with me. Within two days of my filing out the online complaint, it was closed as “Resolved” even though my complaint was not resolved.
A few days later, I finally received a call from Person B, who had been contacted by the online service folks. He said that because I had not sent him the copy of the form approving the QBRM rate until May, they could not refund the entire amount. I explained that I should not have had to send it to them; every other time I have done this for the past six years, the correct amount has been charged without me having to send the USPS proof that the USPS had approved the QBRM rate. I also reminded him that I would have sent in the proof sooner if I had been able to get through on the phone, or if they had responded to my first letter.
Person B said he would speak to his supervisor. Later that day he called back and said, sorry, they couldn’t give the full refund. So I asked to speak to his supervisor, person C. He gave me her phone number. I left her a message, and a week later she got back to me. Person C said it wasn’t up to her; it was up to Person D, and that he wouldn’t be in until the next day, July 31.
I tried calling Person D multiple times. I left a message on July 31, wasn’t able to get through for several days, and left another message on August 6. On August 7 Person D called back. He did not allow me to explain the situation to him, but said he would look into it and call me back. He said the only thing that he wanted to confirm was whether the appropriate person had, indeed, approved the QBRM rate and when it was approved.
On August 20 I still had not heard back from person D, so I called and left him a message. On August 22, and August 27, I called and left him additional messages. I’m still waiting for his response, for a refund we were promised over three months ago.
This is why I hate dealing with the USPS. I have my doubts whether I will be able to make peace with them properly before Rosh Hashanah.
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August 21, 2013 | 1:00 am
Posted by Susan Esther Barnes
The High Holy Days are rapidly approaching, and with it the annual appeal by Mazon to take whatever money we would have spent on Yom Kippur for food if we were not fasting, and donate it to help feed people who are hungry many other days of the year.
That’s a great start, but many synagogues, including the one I attend, also collect food for their local food bank during the High Holy Days. Some people go through their pantry, looking for food items that are reaching their expiration date or which have been sitting around for a while. Others go to the store to buy new items just for the purpose of donation.
The timing is particularly good for the local food banks, which usually get the bulk of their donations in the weeks surrounding Thanksgiving and Christmas. By the time the High Holy Days roll around, many of them are getting low on key items. The donations from these synagogue food drives are often what allow them to stretch their resources until the Thanksgiving donations start rolling in.
Of course, it feels good to be helping out by donating food to others who need it more than we do. But there’s an even better way to participate in this mitzvah which will make this annual tradition even more of a win-win situation for everyone involved.
As Californians, we know there will be another big earthquake. We don’t know when it’s coming, but we know it is coming. There are other disasters, natural and otherwise, that may also impact us, including floods, wildfires, or – God forbid – terrorist acts. Any one of these calamities, if large enough, could overwhelm the infrastructure where we live, leaving us to fend for ourselves for several days.
As a result, we all know that we should have an emergency supply of food and water at home. Although we all know this is a good idea, many of us never get around to gathering such an emergency supply. And even those of us who, one way or the other, become motivated enough to follow through and purchase emergency food supplies may forget about them once they’re purchased, allowing the food items to age and then expire, rendering them useless.
Here is how we can combine the High Holy Day food drive with the old, forgotten emergency food supply issue, to come up with a win-win situation.
First, if you haven’t done so yet (or if your emergency food supply has expired or expiring items in it), buy new food to make sure you and your family has enough non-perishable items to last you for three to five days. Keep in mind that you’ll want a variety of food. You’re not going to want to eat the same old chili for three meals a day for a week. Remember, this stuff is usually good for at least two to three years.
Then, every year when the High Holy Days food drive comes up, go through your emergency supplies and replace everything that is going to expire in the coming year. Donate the replaced food to the High Holy Day food drive. Of course, please don’t hesitate to supplement your donations with additional purchases, if you can afford to do so.
In this way, not only do the food banks get substantial donations during this critical period, but you also are assured that your emergency food supply is regularly refreshed and up-to-date. I also like the idea that the donations we make will be food we like to eat ourselves, rather than whatever off-brand happens to be on sale in September or October. Just because these folks may be down on their luck doesn’t mean they don’t deserve the good stuff.
Remember, the High Holy Days are just around the corner, so don’t wait. Update those earthquake supplies now, and at the same time, help to feed those less fortunate than you. Start the new year with a mitzvah.
August 14, 2013 | 1:00 am
Posted by Susan Esther Barnes
I was honored to have brunch last Sunday morning with Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the President of the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ), along with other leaders from my congregation. I’m going to write about what he said, but first I’m going to write about how he said it.
In the room were several round tables, with a lectern at the front. I was happy to see Rabbi Jacobs completely ignore the lectern. Lecterns serve to create space, both physically and otherwise, between the speaker and the listeners. They also create a more formal atmosphere than might otherwise be present.
Instead of walking to the front of the room to speak, Rabbi Jacobs simply stood up at the table where he had eaten his brunch. But he didn’t stay there. Instead, he spoke for a while from between his table and the one next to it, then moved between two other tables while he continued to speak, then moved again, so that by the time he had finished, he had completed a circuit of the room.
It may not sound like a big deal, but I found it to be impressive. It meant that, before he was done, he had stood near to every single table. It signaled not only informality, but it showed a desire to treat everyone equally. It showed he was not, literally or figuratively, separating himself from us.
After the event was officially over, he made time for us to speak with him one-on-one. Even when he was informed that his ride to the airport was waiting, he did not use it as an excuse to duck out. Rather, he stayed to speak with those who wanted to speak with him.
It’s true; actions speak louder than words. These actions spoke volumes about his values and his character. These things, more than anything he could have said, made me feel proud to have him at the head of the Reform movement. But he did say some impressive things, as well.
Rabbi Jacobs’ message was that our movement is a continuation of what Judaism has always done. It is about growing with the times. As he so eloquently put it, it is about reinventing an eternal tradition.
He spoke about a conversation he had with Rabbi Krinsky of Chabad, who asked him, “Why do you do what you do? You don’t care about kashrut, you don’t care about Shabbat, you don’t care about mitzvot. So what are you trying to achieve?”
Rabbi Jacobs gave the perfect answer. He said, “I do care about kashrut. I do care about Shabbat. I do care about mitzvot. I just care about them in a different way than you do. My job is the same as yours – to bring people to authenticity and a deeper spiritual practice.” Brilliantly put.
He said the URJ is working on the following three priorities:
1. Catalyzing Congregational Change. This doesn’t mean telling congregations what to do. He said it means paying attention, being smart about what needs to change, and bringing tools to congregations to help them realize that change.
2. Expanding Our Reach Beyond the Walls of Synagogues. He spoke about how, in the 50’s and 60’s, everyone joined a synagogue, temple or church. These days, there are many more unaffiliated people. We can’t just sit back and wait for them to show up. We need to go meet them where they are, and help them to have meaningful Jewish experiences outside of the synagogue.
3. Engaging the Next Generation. He said the problem is when we try to tackle this challenge by asking, “How do we make 20 and 30 year old people more like us?” We need to realize they are not like us, and engage them in ways they want to be engaged. He says when they get back from Birthright trips a spark has been lit in them, but they don’t know what to do next. We need to help them with options.
It was an inspiring event, and I’m looking forward to seeing the progress on these priorities in the years to come.
August 7, 2013 | 1:00 am
Posted by Susan Esther Barnes
A friend queried on Facebook, “Why oh why can't BART be clean??? The Embarcadero station smells like a latrine!” It didn’t take long for someone to respond, “Because people are disgusting and have peed all over the stairs.”
It’s so sad the first thing that springs to people’s mind is that subway stations, bus stops, and other public places smell like urine because people are disgusting. Not only does it insult perfect strangers, it completely ignores the root problem.
When tackling this question, I start with the idea that all people were created b’tzelem elohim, in the image of God. God is not disgusting. People are not disgusting. Face it, no sane person wakes up in the morning and thinks, “What disgusting thing can I do today?”
“But,” you may argue, “It is disgusting to urinate in a public place like that. Why don’t they use a toilet like everyone else?”
Let’s take a good look at that question. Why don’t they use a toilet? If no sane person does disgusting things on purpose, maybe some of the people who do it do, in fact, have mental problems. Which raises the question, why are they out on the street? Why are they not being cared for in a way and in a place that they aren’t out wandering the streets, urinating in public?
But they’re not all mentally ill. I would bet most of them aren’t. And they have perfectly good reasons to urinate in public places.
For one thing, many public places don’t have public toilets. Many subway stations have “public” toilets only in places where paying customers are allowed to enter. Many people can’t afford the price of a ticket to get in.
Many people have no place in which to shelter at night. They have no toilet at home they can use, because they have no home. Most places with toilets, like restaurants, are closed at night, and many establishments won’t let people who appear to be homeless use their toilets even when they are open.
The reason people urinate in public places is my fault, and yours. It is because we are not doing enough to provide shelter and mental health care to those who need it. It is because we are not exerting enough pressure on our public servants to ensure there are enough facilities available to everyone who needs a bed, a shower, or even something as simple as a toilet. It’s because we allow people who are mentally ill to fend for themselves on the streets.
Why do bus stops smell like urine? Because you and I would rather think badly of our fellow human beings than take a good, hard look at the problem, and then do what is necessary to fix it.