The Package Is (Still) In The Mail–Distressing Delivery Delays

What’s in your mailbox? A better question might be what’s NOT in your mailbox. Mine has been annoyingly empty on several occasions recently. What’s up? The crushing volume of deliveries to be made during the holiday season has resulted in a behemoth backlog.

Santa delivered Christmas presents in a timely fashion, but U.S.P.S. is still working on getting an unprecedented volume of such packages to their intended destination. Despite the desire for the “swift completion of their appointed rounds” by mail carriers, that goal was unattainable in 2020 continuing on in to 2021. Don’t blame snow or rain or heat or gloom of night for the delays. Let’s unmask (pun intended) the culprit. It’s COVID-19 and the consequences thereof.

The coronavirus achieved more than simply infecting millions and killing thousands here in the United States during 2020. It altered our lives and how we carried out regular tasks and celebrated cherished holidays. The crafty coronavirus even toyed with the postal service and took it for a roller coaster ride. The strategy was the classic good news/bad news scenario. The good news was that the U.S.P.S., which has seen steep declines in volume over the past few years, saw an unprecedented surge in business; the bad news was that this astronomical volume was a tidal wave which swept U.S.P.S. underwater unable to keep pace with the delivery demands. Glub! Glub!

The pandemic created a perfect storm which has paralyzed the postal service. Quarantines and illness among the 644,000 postal employees caused a shortage of workers. According to the American Postal Workers Union, nearly 19,000 U.S.P.S. workers were in quarantine at the end of 2020. And, of course, the end of the year (think Christmas) is a bad time to be short on workers when it’s the busiest delivery time annually.

As the availability of postal employees went down, the demand for deliveries skyrocketed. Because of health concerns, people opted not to personally deliver packages in their local area. It’s safer to mail it, they concluded. Because of health concerns, people thought it best not to travel to spend the holidays with family back home. We’ll have to mail their gifts to them instead, they concluded. Because of health concerns, people shied away from going to malls and other shopping venues where public contact was required. Let’s buy it online and have it shipped, they concluded. Bottom line? Everything had to be delivered. Hear that sound? It’s the tidal wave crashing over the head of U.S.P.S.

The role e-commerce played in the Christmas crush was huge. On Cyber Monday alone online shopping totaled $34.4 billion, an increase of 20% from 2019. During November and December 2020, e-commerce sales were up 33% from the previous year. While many online retailers utilize private delivery services such as UPS and FedEx, those services imposed deadlines for receipt of items for Christmas delivery. Senders who missed the deadline had no choice but to turn to U.S.P.S. to get massive amounts of their items delivered. And many of us, me included, are still waiting for our packages. And waiting. And waiting.

Where are these endlessly “in transit” packages? Widely circulated on the internet are pictures of U.S.P.S. processing and distribution centers across the country filled to overflowing with them. According to a December 28th news report, bays at the Cleveland Post Office were packed with boxes that had yet to be gone through. Due to the sea of incoming packages, trailers were obtained to hold them at annexes in the area. News articles contain stories of folks whose packages traveled to a center in New York and haven’t moved for weeks. I can see a package wanting to hang out in a center in Florida during the winter, but who wants to cool their heels (literally) in New York in December?

In addition to packages, the backlog has affected mail service as well. Letters, cards, and bills have been delayed also. No one ever likes to receive a bill, but it is even worse if the bill isn’t received until after its due date. A postal worker in a Philadelphia postal plant reported that one cannot even move in the building because so much mail is stacked there. So, the check you’re awaiting is not in the mail, it’s in a stack apparently.

Delivery delays are an issue despite the postal service having hired 50,000 seasonal workers in anticipation of increased holiday business. U.S.P.S. reported to Congress that first class mail was delivered on time only 78.9% of the time during the week of November 28th. This figure was far below the service’s goal of 96% on time delivery. To deal with the historic backlog, Sunday deliveries were expanded in some cities with high volume, and employees were required to work a great deal of overtime. With extended work schedules, some postal carriers are now literally working in the gloom of night.

But don’t be too hard on the U.S.P.S. They aren’t the only mail service suffering from delivery delays. Across the pond, the U.K.’s Royal Mail is behind on deliveries as well due to “exceptionally high volumes of post.” A reported online shift to shopping due to the pandemic means that 200 million more parcels were in their post this year. I say, old chap, that’s a lot!

As frustrating as not receiving a gift or an order in a timely fashion is, if that’s the biggest complaint you can make right now, be thankful. How many people did not live to see Christmas due to COVID-19? How many individuals lost their jobs due to the coronavirus and couldn’t afford to buy Christmas gifts to be delivered? Delayed delivery of a package simply means postponed enjoyment; in the context of a pandemic, its better late than never.

Just WONDER-ing:

Have you experienced delay in receipt of mail or packages in the past few weeks? Did you purchase anything online over the holidays to avoid going out publicly to shop? At what point does a delay during peak shipping times become unacceptable?

U.S. Mail Delivery: Neither Snow Nor Rain — Just Money And Politics

Who would have thought that the speed of U.S. mail delivery would be a hot political topic? Well, it is 2020, so anything is possible. Cue the current uproar about the timeliness of delivery of vote by mail ballots for the upcoming presidential election. It’s not snow or rain that would be keeping the USPS from its appointed rounds. No, sir. Blame money and politics for the mail mess.

Why are mail in ballots in the spotlight? It’s a numbers game. The sheer volume of ballots expected to be cast in this manner for the upcoming presidential election is significant. Back in 2016, 1 in 4 ballots cast were submitted by mail; but a surge in mail in ballots is expected for the 2020 presidential election. In fact, a record number of ballots is likely to be sent by mail this fall.

Some states have already seen a demand for mail voting increase five times or more during the primaries. At this rate, it is possible that half or more of voters will cast ballots by mail for the November 3rd election. Using this method, they’ll figuratively be putting the stamp of approval on the candidate of their choice and a literal stamp on the envelope to mail in their ballot.

Mail in ballots are a popular choice due to the coronavirus crisis. Voters are wary of being exposed to the virus at the polls, and CDC has recommended mail ballots as a way to avoid the risk of exposure. Accordingly, an estimated 80 million ballots could be cast by mail in the rapidly approaching election. That’s a mass of mail!

Unfortunately, USPS is delivering some bad news as well as the regular mail. It’s warning states it cannot guarantee all ballots cast by mail for the November 3rd election will arrive in time to be counted even if they are mailed by the required deadline. Some folks are thus sounding the alarm that voters whose ballots are not timely received will effectively be disenfranchised. “Disenfranchised” is a fancy-schmancy word meaning deprived of their right to vote.

So that we’re in good form for the upcoming election, let’s take a quick vote. Raise your hand if you have ever thought USPS delivered mail in a speedy or even timely fashion. (NOTE: My hand is NOT raised.) Although I couldn’t see your hands if they were raised, I’m betting there were none to see anyway. Hey, there’s a reason that traditional mail is called snail mail. Sure, it is way slower than e-mail is, but traditional mail was never fast to begin with. Ridiculously slow times for mail to be delivered have been occurring for some time. Of course, now that it is election time, slow mail delivery must be a political plot, right?

So the theory goes, the new Postmaster General, Louis DeJoy,  a major Trump supporter, is deliberately making changes to the USPS’s operations to benefit the president. DeJoy, a 63 year old former supply chain CEO, took the reins of the USPS in June. His assigned mission from the Commander-in-Chief? Make the USPS more profitable. This task is a daunting one given that the post office has lost money for years. In 2016, the postal service recorded its fifth straight annual operating loss–a whopping  $5.6 billion (that’s billion with a “B”) loss. USPS is in such dire financial straits that it is hoping to receive $10 billion from Congress  simply to remain in operation.

What has DeJoy done since taking over? He has reduced overtime (which increases payroll costs), restricted extra mail transportation trips (which result in more employee time and additional cost for operating postal vehicles), and cut other agency expenses. These measures, to no one’s surprise, has resulted in slower (and it was slow to begin with!) delivery times. AHA! A political plot for sure!

DeJoy is the first postmaster general in almost 20 years who is not a career postal employee. From the current fiscal state of the USPS, it doesn’t seem that a career postal employee makes a good top dog. DeJoy is a successful CEO with a proven business track record. Isn’t that who one would want to shake up an operation which is drowning in red ink? But no! Certainly DeJoy was only chosen because he was (GASP!) a Republican and a Trump supporter. The political plot thickens!

But wait. Is Trump improperly monkeying around with a government operation? Let’s consider what the USPS really is. The postal service, which is explicitly authorized by the U.S. Constitution (in Art. I, Section 8, clause 7 for you fellow political science majors), is an independent government agency of the EXECUTIVE branch. For you non-political science majors, the executive branch is the President. So President Trump is taking steps to shake up an agency in his branch of the government to make it more fiscally sound. How horrible!!!

The USPS is big business, but it is a business that’s in big trouble. How big a business it is? The postal service employs over half a million people and is the third largest civilian employer in the country after the federal government and Walmart. This big business’ big trouble is plummeting use and soaring losses.

With the increasing use of e-mail, the volume of first class mail has significantly declined. In addition to e-mail use, USPS is having to compete against private package delivery services such as Amazon, Federal Express, and UPS. Back in 2009, a proposal was made, but not implemented, to eliminate Saturday mail delivery as a cost-cutting measure.Plans were even  floated to close a number of smaller post offices to stem the flow of red ink from USPS. Correct me if I am wrong, but I don’t recall a hue and cry that these were political moves.

President Trump’s political opponents are currently railing against the cost-cutting measures implemented by USPS. They believe some voters will not have their votes counted if these measures take effect. To head off such a result, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is calling the House back from recess for an in person (not via mail) vote possibly on Saturday. Specifically, legislators will be considering proposed legislation, “Delivering For America,” that would prohibit any changes in mail delivery service prior to the November election. Hmm. That sounds like a political move.

I personally am not in the least bit concerned that my vote won’t get counted. That’s because I’m not going to rely on USPS to timely get a mail ballot in for me. I’m going to go vote in person wearing a mask, socially distancing, and utilizing hand sanitizer after handling the ballot. I’ll put the marked ballot into the machine for tallying, so I have only myself to blame if the delivery is slow.

Just WONDER-ing:

Do you plan to vote in the presidential election? If so, will you be voting in person or via mail? Have you ever voted by mail in the past? Did you have any concerns about doing so? If you were the Postmaster General, what steps would you take to get the USPS back in the black? It is unreasonable to expect an agency to operate in the black?