Delays frustrate post office customers

Wondering why your mail has been so slow lately? So are Virginia’s two United States senators, who sent a letter to the postmaster general earlier this month to demand answers.

The letter from Senators Mark Warner and Tim Kaine cites poor rates of on-time delivery of first-class mail in December in the Richmond Postal District, which includes Louisa County. The average on-time rate was just 55 percent that month, compared to 90 percent from March to July of last year.

Many letters and other mailed items are running into a bottleneck at the Richmond distribution center, according to the senators’ Feb. 1 complaint. A recent report from the postal service’s inspector general found that the Richmond facility had the fourth-highest rate in the country of late trips to deliver mail to local post offices.   

Lindsey Bane, who lives in Louisa County, said mail service to her home has been subpar since early December. She said she recently put outgoing mail in her box and raised the flag, but letters sat there for days before they were picked up. Some mail she was expecting has not shown up, including one letter that was due more than a month ago.

“It’s really starting to get infuriating, [including] for my grandmother, who is waiting on medicine,” she said.  

Warner and Kaine attributed poor delivery rates in part to the coronavirus pandemic, which has taken a toll on postal workers much as it has in other parts of the economy. But they also blamed changes in operations made last summer, including reductions in trips to and from distribution centers and overtime hours.

“Many of our constituents are reporting that they are not receiving any mail for days or weeks at a time,” Warner and Kaine wrote. “We have heard from hundreds of our constituents that recount unacceptable delays in the delivery of everything from Christmas and birthday cards to mail-order medications and credit card bills. We understand this is likely due to staffing shortages but implore you to create additional contingency plans to ensure a particular delivery route does not miss its mail for days at a time simply because its letter carrier is out sick.”

The postal service should publish COVID-19 case levels among staff to show where Congress or the White House may need to intervene, the senators wrote.

Fran Kipper, a spokesperson for the Richmond postal district, did not respond by press time to a request for comment. 

In its response to the inspector general’s report, post office managers acknowledged the impact of staffing shortages related to COVID-19. They also attributed problems in late 2020 to what they called “historic increases” in package volume, an increase in mail due to mail-in ballots for the November election, and the fact the holiday mail season began sooner than in prior years.  

Matt Kersey, who retired in 2020 after 14 years as postmaster in the town of Louisa and Kents Store, said a COVID-19 outbreak had sickened seven employees recently in the Louisa post office, leaving fewer mail carriers than necessary to deliver items on time. The office employs about 20 people, he said.

But Kersey said staffing was an issue long before the pandemic hit. He started noticing problems as far back as eight years ago.

“Many days I didn’t have a clerk to run the front counter,” he recalled. “You can’t run an organization like that. It’s not just Louisa, it’s other places, too.” 

There aren’t enough substitutes available when mail carriers get sick, he added, because opportunities are typically limited to once or twice a week.

Kersey cautioned that allowing significant delays in mail delivery will imperil long-term support for the postal service among customers.

“The post office is one of the most trusted agencies in the country, but if you think about it, the person you have the most contact with is your local carrier. That’s your reference point for whether you trust the postal service.”

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