The Post Office’s Great Mail Slowdown Is Hurting Small Businesses

Packages that used to take no more than three days to get delivered are now being delayed for weeks. “Our hands are tied,” one letter carrier told Motherboard, “and we are constantly set up for failure.”
August 4, 2020, 1:55pm
USPS Postmaster truck.
Image: Jason Koebler

Bryan Tintes used to defend the post office. For the last eight years, he has run a small business based out of Madison, Wisconsin that ships key replacements around the country. His entire business is predicated on fast, reliable service, because people need their key replacements quickly. When he first launched the company in 2013, he used all the major carriers for shipping, but quickly found the United States Postal Service was the best. Not only was it the cheapest service, but it was also the most reliable. Over the years, he structured his entire business around the post office, down to making sure his office is located next to a USPS drop-off location.

“So many of our customers are shocked that we exclusively use USPS that we had to create a blog,” Tintes wrote to Motherboard in an email. For years, Tintes has shipped about 400 packages a week around the country. About 97 percent would arrive on time and the rest perhaps a day later. The blog explaining why he used USPS, which was published in May of 2019, was titled “NEW AND IMPROVED—NOT YOUR OLD POST OFFICE.”

But in recent weeks, Tintes can no longer defend the post office. He estimates one in five packages are not reaching their destination on time. And they are not delayed by a day or two like before. Entire batches of packages go missing for weeks inside a USPS distribution facility or are routed to the wrong part of the country. On Monday, Tintes received a package from a customer in Miami sent via priority mail (typical delivery time of 2-3 days) that was three weeks late. Express mail, which used to take a day to get delivered, can now take a week or more.

“Currently, I think my biggest concern is being able to maintain the super fast processing my company is known for,” Tintes wrote. “If we lose the ability to quickly process orders we will lose customers very quickly.”

Tintes is hardly alone. Small business owners around the country rely on the post office because it is much cheaper, especially for packages, than their private sector competitors like FedEx and UPS. A 2019 report by the USPS Office of the Investigator General found that 70 percent of microbusinesses—defined as any business with fewer than 10 employees—used the post office within the last six months, spending on average $359 per month on shipping, and more than half of them said they ship with the post office most frequently.

But these small business owners are increasingly being let down by the post office.

The coronavirus pandemic has been tough on the USPS, which receives no government subsidy and is funded entirely through user fees. The pandemic exacerbated staffing issues at facilities around the country as the post office continued its decade-plus effort to trim its workforce and cut costs in order to stay financially solvent because a Congressional mandate that it pre-fund health care benefits for current and future employees made it practically impossible for the post office to remain solvent.

While this trimming of the workforce by some 77,000 employees left the post office in a poor position to deal with staffing issues during the pandemic and resulted in some slowed service, the impact was not nearly as bad as it is now, thanks to new policies instituted by postmaster general and Trump donor Louis DeJoy.

According to emails from and interviews with dozens of current USPS employees from around the country, all of whom requested anonymity out of fear of retaliation for speaking to the media, DeJoy has instituted new policies—ostensibly about cutting costs and operating more efficiently—that have handcuffed the post office from being able to process the surge in packages (regular mail like letters, magazines, and newspapers are also impacted, although its volume has significantly reduced during the pandemic because of the decline in marketing mail). Overtime has been heavily restricted, which employees say they need to sort and deliver all of the packages that have flooded into the system sustaining a holiday season-esque surge for months. As a result, employees at processing and distribution facilities can no longer work more hours in order to handle the increased package load. Likewise, trucks from one facility to another must leave at their pre-scheduled time whether all the mail is on it or not and they cannot send extra trucks if the packages don’t fit in one. The longer the policy has been in effect, the worse the backlog gets.

Plus, per the new overtime policy, carriers who deliver the mail now must come to work later and are restricted to spending a mere half hour sorting and loading their trucks in the morning, a task that previously took at least two hours, according to multiple letter carriers around the country. Anything that doesn’t get loaded is left behind for another day.

Do you work for the post office? Know something about the mail delays? We’d love to hear from you. Email Aaron Gordon at aaron.gordon@vice.com.

In a statement to Motherboard that largely echoes the talking points made by DeJoy last week, USPS spokesman Dave Partenheimer said there can’t be any post office gain without any customer pain.

“We have taken immediate steps to better adhere to our existing operating plans, which were developed precisely to ensure that we meet our present service standards in an efficient and effective manner,” Partenheimer said. “Of course we acknowledge that temporary service impacts can occur as we redouble our efforts to conform to the current operating plans, but any such impacts will be monitored and temporary as the root causes of any issues will be addressed as necessary and corrected as appropriate.”

To mask the delays, at least some post office managers have resorted to scanning packages as having attempted delivery when they never left the facility. It’s not clear how common this practice is, but it was confirmed by a postal worker in Wisconsin who said they witnessed their manager scanning packages as having the “delivery attempted” while in the office to fudge the numbers.

Tintes confirmed this pattern, telling Motherboard he has seen it happen occasionally over the years but it has ramped up significantly in recent weeks along with the delays. “Sometimes the package is marked ‘Scanned into facility X’ then ‘Delivery Attempted’ within just a few minutes of each other,” he told Motherboard. Tintes even had a few customers tell him they got the “delivery attempted” status update even though their building has a doorman.

Combined with the longstanding staffing shortages exacerbated by coronavirus, the USPS is in an impossible position, attempting to deliver too many packages with too few employees on a schedule that is far too short.

“Our hands are tied,” one letter carrier from Wilmington, Delaware told Motherboard, “and we are constantly set up for failure.”

Small business owners have noticed. Forums for sellers on Amazon and eBay have been flooded with comments about shipping delays and angry customers.

And customers aren’t always forgiving. “As a small business, I can’t afford to have my shipments late or lost,” one smaller business owner based in Florida who didn’t want to use their name because they fear having their business politicized told Motherboard. “Customers don’t care that it isn’t my fault. And because this hasn’t hit national news to any degree, people don’t know this is happening so they expect their orders.”

For his part, Tintes is now contemplating switching to UPS, which would be worse for both Tintes and the post office. Tintes would have to pay upwards of a dollar more per package, costing him more than $1,200 a month in shipping costs, not to mention the costs of reworking the back end of the order process for UPS’s systems instead of USPS.

As for the post office, small businesses like Tintes taking their business elsewhere would only exacerbate its financial crisis. UPS (as well as FedEx and Amazon for that matter) still use USPS to complete the so-called “last mile” of delivery for many packages, particularly in rural areas where FedEx and UPS don’t serve but the post office is legally mandated to.

As a result, the private shipping companies lean on USPS to deliver packages when they don’t have the capacity to do so. Two postal workers at separate USPS processing and distribution facilities told Motherboard they have seen a huge surge of UPS and Amazon packages recently. So USPS would lose out on most of Tintes’s business, but still get handed responsibility for the most unprofitable part of the shipping process.

In a statement published on the post office’s website on July 27, DeJoy said these changes were necessary and “it is imperative for the Postal Service to operate efficiently and effectively. Indeed, there are alternatives to every product that we offer, and the only way that the Postal Service can continue to provide prompt, reliable, and affordable universal postal services for all Americans over the long-term is by vigorously focusing on the efficiency of our operations.”

But the small business owners Motherboard spoke to aren’t buying it. “The postal service is part of our nation’s infrastructure and was never designed to be profitable,” said the small business owner from Florida. “If we lose the postal service, I will lose a substantial part of my business and so will millions of other small businesses that rely on the postal service.” This person added that they are a Republican and voted for Trump, but now regrets it.