Santa might be late this year.
An overwhelmed U.S. Postal Service has been struggling for weeks to deliver packages, veteran employees said, warning that holiday gifts might not arrive by Christmas as tens of thousands of packages pile up inside Philadelphia-area processing facilities.
“Don’t be using the post office right now, because we can’t deliver the mail,” said Laurence Love, an assistant clerk craft director who operates mail-sorting machines at the Philadelphia Processing and Delivery Center.
Facilities across the region are so full of packages, there is barely enough room to walk, employees in Philadelphia, Lehigh Valley, and South Jersey said. In Allentown, about 10 trailers filled with mail are sitting in the parking lot, with no room to unload the items.
In Philadelphia, there are packages dated from before Thanksgiving scattered across the facility, employees said. Last week, a miles-long caravan of dozens of delivery trucks filled with mail waited for hours outside the Southwest Philadelphia site because there was no room to unload the parcels.
People across the region say they are seeing their items scanned into processing plants but never scanned out. Packages have taken so long that customers are demanding refunds from already-strapped businesses struggling to survive the pandemic.
The widespread delays are caused by a massive staffing shortage due to rising coronavirus cases, long-term job cuts, and a liberal pandemic leave policy, combined with a record rush of holiday packages as more people shop online. On top of that, private express carriers like UPS and FedEx, similarly seeing record package levels, cut off delivery service for some retailers, which has funneled even more parcels through an already overwhelmed Postal Service.
The delays shouldn’t come as a shock to anyone — employees, union leaders, and outside experts have sounded alarms of an impending holiday-time disaster for months but believe the agency failed to adequately prepare and hire enough temporary workers, exacerbating the backlog and delays.
“You’re not gonna get your Christmas presents because we don’t have the people and the ingenuity to do it,” said Love, an employee of 35 years.
The USPS also warned customers of a busier season, with the peak week being Dec. 16 to 21, and urged people to send gifts early. Still, it is messaging to customers that parcels sent by Dec. 18 could be delivered by Christmas, even though Philly-area businesses have reported packages sent as early as Nov. 27 remain undelivered, with no tracking updates of their status or location.
In response to a request for comment, the agency shared a news release that cited record package numbers, an employee shortage due to COVID-19, and airlift and trucking “capacity challenges” as reasons for the delays. USPS said it has hired holiday staffers, expanded delivery and retail hours, leased more vehicles, and expanded technology to enhance package tracking.
“The Postal Service leadership team, the unions and management associations are all working in close collaboration to address issues and concerns as they arise as we focus on delivering the Holidays for the nation,” the agency said in the release.
Employees called the conditions inside embarrassing and borderline dangerous.
“You can’t even move, that’s how much mail we have in that building,” Nick Casselli, president of the American Postal Workers Union Local 89, said of the Philadelphia plant.
“In 33 years, I have never seen it this bad,” Andy Kubat, president of the Lehigh Valley Area Local, said of the Allentown facility.
Representatives from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration have recently visited the Philadelphia and Allentown plants to inspect the conditions, reports show. A spokesperson for OSHA did not respond to requests for comment.
Understaffed and overworked
The backlog comes at the end of a tumultuous year for the Postal Service, after new Postmaster General Louis DeJoy instituted cost-cutting operational changes that resulted in widespread mail delays this summer. Those changes — some of which were meant to better situate the agency to deliver packages amid declining letter-mail volumes — were reversed in the fall after federal judges intervened ahead of the election.
While it doesn’t appear any corporate-level changes are playing a role in the current holiday backlog, employees say the agency failed to adequately prepare.
Employees warned of the impending holiday disaster in October, as the diversion of resources toward delivering election mail meant packages started piling up. They never fully recovered from that, and then the tsunami of holiday parcels hit, and now Philadelphia employees worry it could take well into January to clear the backlog.
No good data exist to offer a comprehensive look at package delivery, unlike letters, but reporting shows the current delays appear countrywide.
“It’s all throughout the country, not just Philadelphia,” Casselli said.
Philadelphia residents and businesses said they’ve watched packages sit in facilities in St. Louis and San Diego for weeks via the tracking system. In Cleveland, dozens of trucks waited in a 12-hour line to drop off and pick up USPS packages.
Every year, the Postal Service hires tens of thousands of seasonal workers to handle the holiday influx. In the early 2000s, Kubat said, the Allentown plant would hire a few hundred temporary employees. Since 2018, as letter-mail volumes declined, the number hired dropped dramatically.
This year, despite early predictions of a swamped holiday rush, only 30 temporary employees were hired to work the Allentown plant, he said, and retention has been low. About 10 contracted workers quit in the last two weeks because of the grueling hours, Kubat said. “One woman quit before her first day was even finished.”
“It’s too little, too late,” he said. “They are working them to death.”
Ray Daiutolo Sr., USPS spokesperson for the Philadelphia area, declined to provide information on the total number of temporary hires made in Philadelphia. Casselli said the package-sorting section of the plant added only 48 temp workers.
The peak of online ordering — which was forecast to surge 33% year-over-year for November and December, to a record $189 billion, according to Adobe Analytics — has converged as peak coronavirus cases take hundreds of postal workers off the job.
More than 200 Philadelphia postal employees have tested positive for COVID-19 since Nov. 20, Casselli said. About 10 Allentown workers have contracted the virus in the last two weeks, said Kubat, who is quarantining after being exposed at work.
Across the South Jersey region, more than 120 postal workers have tested positive since Dec. 1, according to daily reports reviewed by The Inquirer.
Small businesses bear the brunt
Already-struggling small businesses are feeling the impacts. Sellers on sites like eBay and Etsy have said it’s taking upward of three weeks for priority packages to arrive, and merchants say customers are asking where their orders are.
Patti Lyons, the owner of Peace Valley Lavender Farm in Doylestown, said they have used the USPS to ship their handmade lavender-infused products across the country for 20 years. Delays this year, she said, are the worst she’s ever seen.
At least 40 packages sent on Dec. 3 have yet to be received by customers, she said, with tracking information showing the items logged into the Fountainville, Bucks County, office or Philadelphia processing facility, but never scanned out to their next destination. Customer complaints come in daily, she said, and about 10 have asked for refunds.
Lyons said they’ve added UPS as a shipping option, though it’s more expensive for customers. She said they will add a warning on their website about the delays, but worry it could deter customers from ordering altogether.
“We have already sent out an email saying this is what’s going on, that we are really sorry and we need to be patient,” she said. “But that’s not getting people’s packages to them.”
Susan Murphy, the creator of Jawnaments, the small business that makes Philly-inspired ornaments, said 327 packages she mailed are in limbo. She dropped off a portion of the batch at the Fishtown post office on Dec. 5, and the rest at the 30th Street location on Dec. 11, but they have yet to be scanned into the system as even being received.
“Anything I brought to the post office on Dec. 5 or after, a bulk are AWOL,” said Murphy.
She said she receives about a dozen emails daily from customers asking about their orders. At least one person has demanded a refund and threatened to write a bad review. She has since added a banner at the top of her Etsy page warning people about the delays and that she cannot guarantee delivery by Christmas.
She’s trying not to blame the postal workers — she even took doughnuts to the Fishtown office this week to ease employees’ stress — but said it’s hard not to grow frustrated.
“We need reindeer and we need Santa to come in and help the United States Postal Service,” Murphy said. “I’ll buy Santa a Citywide Special as soon as he’s done.”