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Mail delays are frustrating Philly residents, and a short-staffed Postal Service is struggling to keep up

“It’s just piles of our mail sitting in the post office," one Overbrook Park resident said.

Photograph of Post Office at N. 63rd Street at Media in Philadelphia as seen on Thursday, July 30, 2020.
Photograph of Post Office at N. 63rd Street at Media in Philadelphia as seen on Thursday, July 30, 2020.Read moreALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / Staff Photographer

Neighborhoods across the Philadelphia region are experiencing significant delays in receiving their mail, with some residents going upwards of three weeks without packages and letters, leaving them without medication, paychecks, and bills.

The delays come at a time when the U.S. Postal Service is experiencing significant changes. The new Postmaster General’s policies eliminate overtime, order carriers to leave mail behind to speed up their workdays, and slash office hours, which — coupled with staffing shortages amid previous budget cuts and coronavirus absences — are causing extensive delivery delays.

According to local union leaders and carriers, mail is piling up in offices, unscanned and unsorted. Mail carriers who spoke with The Inquirer said they are overwhelmed, working long hours yet still unable to finish their routes. Offices are so short-staffed that when a carrier is out, a substitute is often not assigned to their route.

“I understand we are flexing our available resources to match the workload created by the impacts of the ongoing Coronavirus pandemic,” said USPS spokesperson Ray V. Daiutolo Sr. “We have a liberal leave policy and we are aggressively trying to hire qualified candidates. We appreciate the patience of our customers and the efforts of employees as conditions change on a day-to-day basis. We are proud of our workforce for the essential role they are playing for the customers they serve.”

He said the USPS made its leave policy more flexible due to the pandemic.

Residents are trying to understand the situation, but many are struggling to get by without checks or packages of food they’re expecting to receive.

“I feel bad complaining because it’s a bigger issue,” said Robert Young Sr., an Overbrook resident who went more than a week without receiving mail, leaving him without worker’s compensation payments. “But we still have to live.”

‘It’s just piles of our mail sitting in the post office’

Customers are past frustrated. For example, in Overbrook Park, which has seen at least four coronavirus cases among carriers in the last month, according to the union, residents are desperate.

Valerie Rice said her mail has arrived only once every two weeks in July. She receives medication for her 25-year-old grandson, who has autism, through the mail. But now it doesn’t come on time, forcing her to go to different drugstores across the city, in hopes they have what he needs.

“I try to stay by him and pray for life that I have what I need to take care of him,” said Rice, 65.

Donald Bullock said he has gone three weeks without his mail — leaving 71 letters and three packages, including two paychecks, sitting inside the Overbrook post office, according to his USPS mail alerts.

Daiutolo said that in Overbrook’s case, the managers are “flexing available resources to match workload” and that “every effort is being made to deliver mail.”

People across the city — North Philly, Queen Village, South Philly, and parts of Southwest — say they’re seeing two- to three-day lags and that their packages are arriving weeks after their projected delivery date.

Residents have filed customer-service complaints and have gone to their post office trying to pick up their mail, but they’re told they must wait for the carrier to deliver their items.

“It’s the same runaround, but nothing is being done,” said Young. “It’s just piles of our mail sitting in the post office.”

Staff shortages and policy changes

Across Philadelphia, at least 133 Postal Service employees — from carriers and clerks to mail handlers and custodians — have tested positive for the coronavirus since March, according to records provided by American Postal Workers Union Local 89. Two employees have died. Philadelphia’s main headquarters has been hit hard — the Processing and Delivery Center has seen 34 cases, while the Main Office of Delivery on 30th and Chestnut Streets has seen 28.

The cases are exacerbating staffing shortages, said Nick Casselli, president of APWU Local 89. When an employee tests positive, they cannot work for at least two weeks, and employees who have been in contact with them are forced to quarantine for 14 days. If there is no one to fill in, the mail doesn’t go out.

On top of staff shortages, the agency has seen a significant increase in packages due to a boom in online shopping as people stay home. Casselli said Philadelphia’s plant was processing about 30,000 parcels per day before the coronavirus. Now, it’s processing 100,000.

“They were short-staffed before COVID, and now they don’t have the manpower to process the mail that needs to be delivered,” said Casselli. “Mail is sitting for a week to 10 days before they’re even scanned to go out.”

Amid this increase, sudden policy changes instituted to cut costs by new Postmaster General Louis DeJoy, a Trump donor who was appointed in May, are exacerbating delays, at a time when unprecedented voting by mail has put scrutiny on the agency. In memos to employees, DeJoy has ordered carriers to leave mail behind if it delays routes, and said the agency will prohibit overtime.

Additionally, post offices’ hours are being slashed, including in Camden and Cherry Hill.

“These are things that have never ever happened in the history of the post office,” said Casselli.

Carriers are being told to leave mail behind

The USPS, which is part of a $1.6 trillion mailing industry that employs 7.3 million people, faces crippling debt.

Philip F. Rubio, a history professor at North Carolina A&T State University who has written numerous books about the Postal Service, said the current changes are part of the Trump administration’s quest to turn the public against the post office and ultimately privatize it.

“What’s happening now is really egregious,” he said.

Mail carriers say the new orders have forced them to abandon some of the most sacred commitments of their job.

Two Philadelphia-area carriers who spoke on the condition of anonymity to protect their jobs said supervisors instruct them to leave mail behind and prioritize the delivery of Amazon packages. Both said that their stations are overflowing with parcels, and that they cannot fit the amount of mail they have to deliver in one day in their trucks or bags.

“It’s more packages than at Christmastime. It’s impossible to keep up,” said a North Philadelphia-area carrier who is working 90 hours per week, still unable to finish his routes.

A 20-year carrier in Delaware County said cutting overtime would be detrimental amid huge amounts of mail and directions to leave it behind. In his area, six routes do not have assigned carriers, so others work overtime to deliver those routes. If overtime is cut, there will be “no bodies to deliver that mail.”

“The things we were told never to do because that would get us fired are all the things management is encouraging us to do,” he said. “In 20 years of delivering, no one has ever told us not to deliver mail up until this point.”

Correction: This story has been corrected to note that the USPS is only one part of the $1.6 trillion mailing industry, which employs 7.3 million people. The Postal Service itself employs 633,108 people.