Why Your Post Office Packages Are Delayed

It’s not so much what the current Postmaster General is doing as much as what the federal government has not done.
July 27, 2020, 5:31pm
Three USPS mailboxes.
Image by Jackie Ramirez from Pixabay

Last week, independent business owner Cassie LaBelle posted a Twitter thread about her packages being delayed. Like many small business owners, LaBelle relies on the United States Postal Service to deliver mail, including parcels, in a timely and affordable manner. The thread, which as of this writing has more than 36,000 retweets, said the typically reliable USPS has been faltering in recent weeks.

“I can't even count the number of packages I sent domestic via USPS that experienced significant delays over the past few years because the number was so small,” she wrote, but “Since DeJoy took over the USPS? 5-10% of my mail is taking WEEKS to be delivered. Some have been stuck in the system for OVER A MONTH.”

LaBelle is referring to USPS Postmaster General Louis DeJoy, who took over the job on June 15 and also happens to be a top Trump donor. A month into his job, DeJoy issued a memo first reported by the Washington Post mentioning the Post Office’s dire financial condition and announced a slate of new policies. The item that was the most widely reported was that the Post Office would now accept delayed mail to save costs.

There has been a lot of confusion—and sometimes outright misinformation—over what DeJoy’s policies are actually doing. Some, like LaBelle, are blaming him for USPS’s current struggles.

But the reality is more complicated. In interviews with seven postal workers from around the country, all of whom requested anonymity out of fear of retaliation for speaking to the press, Motherboard heard many of the same concerns LaBelle expressed: that DeJoy may try to intentionally disrupt USPS services in order to sabotage the mail-in ballot system ahead of the November elections, that he is hellbent on privatizing the USPS, and that he is in cahoots with Trump. But at the same time, they dismissed the possibility he is responsible for current or past package delays. When asked how they knew this, the postal workers told Motherboard that they have been having delivery issues on and off for months, long before DeJoy took over. The far simpler explanation, they said, is there are just too many packages right now for them to handle.

That being said, postal workers are leery of DeJoy’s actions partly because, given the USPS’s current state and past actions by Congress, it’s hard to tell the difference between cost-cutting in the name of efficiency and intentionally sabotaging the USPS. As one letter carrier from Ohio put it, a political loyalist running the post office “is the trojan horse that Republicans have wanted for 20-plus years.”

Do you work for the USPS? Know something we should know? Email Aaron Gordon at aaron.gordon@vice.com.

DeJoy’s July 10 memo, titled “Pivoting For Our Future,” caught the media’s attention because of one particularly inflammatory line. “One aspect of these changes that may be difficult for employees is that—temporarily—we may see mail left behind or mail on the workroom floor or docks (in P&DCs [Processing and Distribution Centers]), which is not typical,” the memo stated.

But the rest of the memo paints a picture of a new boss trying to attack one particular source of rising costs: overtime payments due to “late and extra trips.”

This problem is not a figment of DeJoy’s imagination. The USPS system was hardly operating at peak efficiency even before COVID hit. In January, the USPS Office of Investigator General conducted site visits at 16 processing and distribution facilities around the country. It found that, for the 2019 fiscal year, 17 percent of mail volume “was not processed on time to meet its target delivery date,” about 20 percent of transportation trips left processing facilities late, and carriers were late returning from their delivery rounds 18 percent of the time. All of this resulted in an estimated $1.1 billion in overtime payments related to inefficiency and delays, continuing an ongoing trend in USPS’s reliance on overtime to meet delivery goals.

Why the reliance on overtime? Because the USPS has slashed its workforce over the last decade due to the fiscal troubles stemming from the passage of the Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act in 2006. This law required the USPS to pre-pay billions of dollars a year into a fund for health benefits its future workforce will need, a requirement no other federal entity—or, for that matter, private company—has. In recent years, USPS stopped paying into this fund because it could no longer afford to.

As a result of this fiscal kneecapping—along with the concurrent decline in first-class mail straining the USPS’s finances as it was—the USPS undertook a decade-long cost-cutting effort to hire fewer workers and pay them less. Between 2009 and 2018, USPS cut its workforce by 77,000 people, pays new hires less, and increasingly relies on “non-career employees” who get paid by the hour, have no set schedule, and have fewer benefits, according to the Government Accountability Office. These measures collectively saved the USPS about $2.5 billion a year between 2016 to 2018, less than half of what its annual health pre-pay requirements are under the 2006 law.

Nevertheless, employee compensation is still a higher percentage of USPS’s costs compared to FedEx and UPS (72 percent according to a Government Accountability Office report). Surely, the USPS’s massive 634,000-strong workforce has real inefficiencies that, if addressed, would lead to savings. But the USPS also has to do something FedEx and UPS don’t. It is legally obligated to deliver the mail to every single person in the country, a fundamentally laborious task.

This is why it’s not fair to compare FedEx and UPS’s compensation numbers to USPS’s in such an apples-to-apples fashion. In fact, it’s a total fallacy to discuss all of these shipping companies with respect to USPS like they’re totally separate, because they’re heavily reliant on one another. UPS, FedEx, and Amazon all use USPS to some degree for handling the delivery of packages, and in turn USPS use contractors including FedEx to get packages between distribution points. Insofar as FedEx and UPS might pay a smaller share of its revenue to workers, it’s largely because they use the post office for the most laborious and least profitable part of the shipping process.

Partly as a result of this interconnectedness, USPS is hardly the only one experiencing delivery issues over the last several months. UPS has had serious delays in the Bay Area and FedEx has struggled to adapt to a mostly commercial delivery business to more residential service. Even Amazon Prime went through a few months where many deliveries took far more than two days and the company had to impose strict limits on who could order what.

The shared networks make it difficult to identify where delays are actually coming from. Even the USPS letter carriers I spoke to often had no idea why packages were delayed. They guessed there were backlogs at distribution facilities, especially ones in cities hit harder by COVID, but didn’t know for sure. A report by the Portland Press Herald in Maine claims letter carriers are being told by their local postmaster to delay mail and first-class packages to ensure Amazon deliveries are made on time. None of the carriers Motherboard spoke to said they had been told to do the same, but they added it would hardly be the first time different regions were doing things differently. Along those lines, a key finding of the June OIG report was a lack of standard operating procedures or “best practices” across facilities.

What is clear is that USPS is trying to do more with less. It is delivering somewhere between 60 and 80 percent more packages than it typically does this time of year and for a longer sustained period, in many cases without the staffing increases that typically accompany the similarly busy Christmas rush. The only way the USPS has been able to manage is to have the existing workforce work longer and pay them the accompanying overtime to do it.

According to the USPS employees Motherboard spoke to, it’s too early to say what impact DeJoy’s policies will have. For example, it takes time for distribution facilities to get so backed up that packages get delayed for weeks. Whether or not DeJoy’s plan works, it won’t fix what ails the post office. Only Congress can do that, and few are optimistic about that.