Slow mail and political warfare — and the pandemic — have thrown the agency into crisis.
By Todd C. Frankel, August 19, 2020, Washington Post, Provided by Angelo Anagnostopoulos
Dennis Beach began noticing the delays in July. That’s when the mail-order prescriptions needed to treat his high blood pressure and help him sleep at night started arriving late from a Department of Veterans Affairs pharmacy. A five-day delay. Even two weeks, he says. It has been nerve-racking at times waiting for the mail carrier to arrive.
“Usually I order it online, and I don’t have any trouble,” said Beach, a Navy veteran who lives in Gaylord, Mich. “But the way the mail is these days, you don’t know when you’re going to get your stuff.”
The political heat of the summer of 2020 — filled with worries about mail-in voting — has thrown the Postal Service into crisis. The agency’s reputation, the best of any federal agency, is now at stake as Americans more loudly voice their frustration about delayed prescriptions, late bills and undelivered packages, along with fears of alleged political interference by a new Republican postmaster general and President Trump, compromising not just everyday mail but also mail-in ballots this fall.
Reports of postal problems surged in recent weeks and appeared to run from rural routes in the nation’s heartland to cities up and down both coasts. Antidepressants suddenly held up in the mail for nine days on Long Island. A roof warranty claim in California that did not reach its destination in time. Complaints have poured in to politicians. The office of Sen. Robert P. Casey Jr. (D-Pa.) office said this week that it has received more than 15,000 letters about mail delivery concerns.
“We’re getting horrible reports out there,” said Mark Dimondstein, president of the American Postal Workers Union. “It’s very discouraging.”
The question now is whether the problems will abate after Louis DeJoy, the new postmaster general, suspended on Tuesday actions the Postal Service was undertaking, including removing mail sorting machines and limiting overtime, that had been blamed for exacerbating delays.
But it’s not clear how much of a difference the moves will make.
According to private data, this summer’s mail woes appear to be only slightly worse than they were last year — and the delivery may be more related to the coronavirus pandemic. From July 1 through Aug. 15 — the period when DeJoy’s new policies were going into effect — 31 percent of mail was late, compared with the 26.5 percent from January to June, according to GrayHair Software, a leading provider of mail tracking data.
And this year, 27 percent of tracked mail was considered late, compared with 23 percent over the same period in 2019. But delivery woes were worse in the first part of 2020 — just as the pandemic hit — than during the summer, when compared with the same periods last year.
GrayHair Software is one of the companies that tracks the speed of U.S. mail using “intelligent mail” bar codes on many letters and packages, providing detailed data on the movement from drop-off to delivery for the majority of mail traffic, including bank statements, nonprofit solicitations and retail catalogues.
The average delay for late mail is one to two days, the company said.
Bar code tracking is considered by many mail-dependent businesses to be more sensitive and up to date than the Postal Service’s own on-time performance data, which in its most recent release showed a long-running decline in on-time mail through June 30.
“There doesn’t appear to be a systemic problem,” said Angelo Anagnostopoulos, vice president of postal affairs for GrayHair Software.
The problem may appear to be significantly worsening because people are suddenly paying close attention to it, he said.
“We can say with surety we have not seen a systemic degradation in service,” added an official with another mail tracking firm, Intelisent, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal data.
Other key trade groups, prescription delivery companies and organizations that depend on timely delivery of the mail also say that they have not noticed a major deterioration in mail service.
The mail-tracking data underscores the fragility of the nation’s trust in the Postal Service, and how even scattered reports of postal problems can shape public perceptions. Even if most mail-in ballots this fall are delivered without a hitch, the slightest problem, in a swing state, could throw the nation into a crisis.
Such concerns intensified after DeJoy, a top Trump ally, became postmaster general earlier this year. DeJoy this summer took actions described as getting the agency on firmer financial footing, including limiting overtime, post office hours, extra delivery trips and other steps the service had traditionally taken to ensure timely delivery.
Trump has acknowledged that he is seeking to limit the Postal Service’s ability to deliver ballots this fall.
Facing public outcry, congressional scrutiny and lawsuits by states, the Postal Service announced Tuesday that it is suspending cost-cutting moves until at least after the November election.
Anagnostopoulos said it appears DeJoy’s new policies have contributed to some new delays, but most of the problem appeared to be driven by “edge cases” — places hit hard by the coronavirus, such as a mail-processing site in Louisiana that at one point earlier this year lost most of its workforce for a brief period.
The Postal Service faced other pandemic-related problems. The agency warned in April that covid-19 would cause priority mail’s two- to three-day service commitment to be extended to up to four days. In May, an outbreak temporarily closed a mail facility in Denver that services Colorado and Wyoming. More than 25,000 postal workers had been quarantined by early June, according to the National Association of Letter Carriers.
Anagnostopoulos said he understood the attention on the problem. A late prescription or missing letter can have big consequences.
“But when you look at it aggregate,” he said, “it’s not that bad.”
Still, reports from ordinary Americans and postal worker representatives — flooding social media and appearing on front pages of newspapers nationwide — have stoked concern.
Ken Carroll, who lives outside Boston, said mail-order prescriptions that once arrived in two days suddenly took 10.
The Costco pharmacy prescription that normally took two or three days via the Postal Service to reach Max White, who lives near Frederick, Md., recently required eight.
“It’s not Christmas. So I don’t know what’s going on,” White said. “But it undermines confidence in the mail.”
Costco declined to comment.
In Albuquerque, Laura Wofford said she is still waiting for packages that should have arrived several days ago.
In Norman, Okla., accountant Stephanie Smart said her usually reliable mail service took a sudden turn for the worse in July. Paperwork from tax clients mailed to her never showed up, forcing her to file for extensions. She never received four bank statements and one monthly bill. And her mailbox has been empty on at least three days — something that seemed unusual considering the flood of mail she usually receives.
“Everything was working great until July,” Smart said.
Postal workers, too, have noticed new problems.
Lori Cash, who works at a post office outside Buffalo, said mail has been piling up, causing delays for rural communities.
“We’re seeing some Zip codes that haven’t received mail in a couple days,” she said.
In Tampa, postal clerk Annette Castro said mail is not being delivered as quickly as it used to be. She attributed the problems to DeJoy’s order that mail delivery trucks depart on time rather than waiting for all of that day’s mail to be loaded.
“Mail is being left on the dock,” Castro said. “We are short people, because they’re not hiring. I do see mail starting to get backed up.”
Supporters of DeJoy’s changes said the new rules are necessary for an agency that has been under financial pressure from declining volume and rising competition. U.S. mail volume peaked in 2006 at more than 200 billion pieces. It is now down to fewer than 150 billion pieces a year. At the same time, the Postal Service delivers to more addresses than ever.
But the extent of the current delivery problems — where blames lies — is difficult to ascertain.
Some mail-order prescription companies said their operations have not been severely affected.
CVS Pharmacy said in a statement that it “has not been affected by service delays” for its local mail-order prescription deliveries. Express Scripts, the nation’s largest mail-order pharmacy, also is “not currently experiencing any unusual delays in deliveries,” according to a company statement.
But many heavy users of the Postal Service said they have not experienced problems.
“We’re not seeing anything out of the ordinary at this point,” said Steve Kearney, president of the Alliance for Nonprofit Mailers, whose group represents clients such as the American Lung Association and the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Timely delivery of their fundraising requests and updates is critical. Kearney keeps close tabs on the post office’s performance and the actions of the postmaster general.
“If there was something political or nefarious, we’d be upset about it,” Kearney said.
The Postal Service’s performance is important to groups such as Our Sunday Visitor, a Catholic publishing company in Huntington, Ind. The company mails 2 million to 3 million sets of church offering envelopes each month to addresses nationwide, among other products.
Its most recent shipping cycle ran from late July through early August, said Trista Niswander, the publisher’s postal manager. Ninety-four percent of its shipments of offering envelopes were delivered within seven days, she said, “which is right on target, exactly what we would expect.”
“I have seen absolutely nothing out of the ordinary,” Niswander added.
Some financial companies have noted letters now take an extra day or two to reach customer’s homes, said Michael Plunkett, president of the Association for Postal Commerce, which represents companies and groups that account for the majority of commercial mail.
He attributed the delays to DeJoy’s new rules and pandemic-related problems.
It’s clear that some delivery delays are occurring, said Hamilton Davison, president of the American Catalog Mailers Association. And those problems have taken on an ominous tone “given all the media reports [about slow mail] and the craziness from the White House about deliberately delaying funding.”
But he attributes the problems to coronavirus hot spots and struggles to adjust to the new Postal Service mandates.
“It’s really hard to draw a bead on what’s happening,” Davison said, “but there’s no widespread failure.”
Hannah Denham contributed to this report.