Moneybox

Why the Mail System Is Buckling

The election didn’t defeat the U.S. Postal Service, but Christmas might.

Right now, there’s a mailman in Cleveland named Aaron having an unseasonably light Christmastime. “It’s been really kind of wild, and nothing like what I’ve ever seen in the four years I’ve been working here,” the United States Postal Service carrier told me recently, describing mail volumes that look like a third of what he’s used to in December. Aaron (who asked that his full name not be printed) hasn’t gotten lucky, though—he’s very, very concerned.

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Package volumes in Northern Ohio are up 70 percent compared with this time last year, and sorting facilities that distribute mail to post offices are slammed trying to process everything, leading to major backlogs. Customers on Aaron’s route are complaining they’ve been waiting ages for certain items. At some point, it just might all come at once. “Everybody’s nervously joking about ‘When is the flood going to hit?’ ” Aaron said. “We’re all seeing that backup getting bigger and bigger, and when that dam breaks, it’s going to be quite an experience here.”

Reports from around the country indicate that a huge upsurge in package volumes this winter has been leading to major delivery delays. According to CBS, the nation’s delivery infrastructure—comprising USPS and private companies like FedEx and UPS—is failing to pick up an estimated 6 million packages on time per day. Consumers attempting to track their packages are seeing them inch along the delivery chain or become stuck at facilities.

Kim Frum, a senior public relations representative for USPS, sent a statement that read, in part, “While every year the Postal Service carefully plans for peak holiday season, a historic record of holiday volume compounded by a temporary employee shortage due to the COVID-19 surge, and capacity challenges with airlifts and trucking for moving this historic volume of mail are leading to temporary delays.” Somehow, that more or less covers it all while managing to understate just how dramatically our mail system is buckling right now. Here, factor by factor, is what’s slowing down your mail.

Package Volumes

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A record number of packages leading into the winter holidays appears to be the driving force behind USPS’ gridlock. Postmaster General Louis DeJoy recently said that package volumes could be up as much as a third compared with 2019. Since venturing out to brick-and-mortar stores is becoming increasingly risky with the exploding number of coronavirus cases, consumers are relying more on e-commerce to do their holiday shopping, which is putting a strain on the postal system.

Paul Steidler, a senior fellow at the Lexington Institute who studies logistics and energy, told me that USPS is much better at scaling up to handle a huge influx of paper mail—say, a boom in election mail—compared with packages. “Delivering packages is a harder and inherently more costly business for the Postal Service. Mail goes to nearly every address and is compact. You can have tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of Postal Service revenue in a single small truck,” he said. “Packages are bulkier, do not go to every address, and require several trips back to a post office on a typical given day.” At times, carriers will have to pause their routes to go back to the station and pick up additional mail and packages, which adds time to their shifts.

FedEx and UPS

Private delivery companies rely on USPS for last-mile shipping, to reach rural areas, and, in a way, to pick up the slack when they become overloaded. The Washington Post reports that FedEx and UPS have been cutting off new deliveries for certain retailers due to the sheer glut of packages. Customers who’ve been abandoned by these private shippers are turning to USPS, which can’t reject delivery orders. “The Postal Service is the wonderful public entity that takes everybody’s mail, has to take everybody’s mail, should take everybody’s mail, so there is no safety valve there,” said Mark Dimondstein, president of the American Postal Workers Union.

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Wally Nowinski, chief marketing officer at the user-customized products company Collage.com, has been experiencing huge headaches using private carriers this year. November and December typically account for more than half the company’s business for the entire year, much of which is conducted through the mail system. Demand for products from Collage.com, like blankets and mugs with pictures printed on them, are up 50 to 100 percent compared with the last holiday season. At the same time, though, shipping times are lengthening. “The most disruptive thing we’ve seen is UPS, with no notice, in random emails, canceling pickups … and leaving pallets of products that customers have ordered stranded on the dock,” Nowinski said. He says he sees the most holdups for his company’s packages at the stage in the journey when UPS is supposed to hand them off to USPS for last-mile shipping. Collage.com has seen 30 percent of orders through UPS’ ground service and 52 percent of orders through USPS take longer than usual based on historical data. And 84 percent of orders that the company sends through UPS Mail Innovations, a joint service between UPS and USPS, have been experiencing delays.

COVID-19

The pandemic has been hanging over the Postal Service’s many ordeals this year, affecting its ability to handle the summer slowdowns wrought by DeJoy’s sudden cost-cutting measures, the unprecedented number of mail-in ballots during the election, and now the unprecedented e-commerce blitz this holiday season. The winter spike in coronavirus cases has only served to exacerbate the issue. “The surge that’s been happening throughout just about the entire country is also affecting the Postal Service, postal workers, and our families and communities,” said Dimondstein. “We have more people quarantined than we’ve ever had and we have more people test positive than we’ve ever had.” More than 14,000 USPS employees—out of a total workforce of nearly 500,000—are quarantining due to coronavirus exposure, and about 5,300 of those people have tested positive, according to an update that the National Association of Letter Carriers provided earlier this month. The absences ripple throughout the entire USPS system, which was already short-staffed prior to the pandemic.

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Aaron, the Cleveland mail carrier, said that his colleagues at the post office have largely been able to avoid infection, which he partly attributes to the fact that carriers spend most of the workday on routes outside and thus can more easily practice social distancing. However, staff shortages in other parts of the delivery chain have nonetheless affected how his post office functions. He told me his station manager has had to drive a rented U-Haul truck back and forth between the post office and the sorting facility to transport mail and packages. “I don’t think that I’ve ever been aware of that happening before.”


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