Are you still waiting for packages from early December to arrive?
You’re not alone, but be patient, postal workers warn, because it might be a while.
In U.S. Postal Service facilities in Pennsylvania and across the country, hundreds of thousands of items sent in late November and early December are sitting at the bottom of massive piles of delayed mail that continue to grow with new packages daily.
Employees at the Philadelphia Processing and Delivery Center said they are prioritizing the packages coming in now, and doing their best to scrounge up items under the mass when time allows. But as the agency continues to experience record package volumes amid the pandemic, the pile keeps growing.
“Honestly, it’s going to be at least six to eight weeks” until the backlog is cleared, said Laurence Love, a clerk craft director at the Philadelphia facility on Lindbergh Boulevard.
“All we can ask of people is to be patient and understand that the people that are working inside the facilities, inside the post offices are doing everything they can,” said Andy Kubat, president of the Lehigh Valley Area Local American Postal Workers Union.
While delays persist across the country, the Philadelphia region fared particularly badly this holiday season, said Satish Jindel, president of ShipMatrix, a Pittsburgh-area company that tracks parcels.
More than 90% of packages were delivered on time in the Philadelphia metro area through November, according to ShipMatrix data. Then, Jindel said, the delivery rate dropped dramatically in early December. By Christmas week, on-time delivery was below 50%. Jindel couldn’t give precise data to compare Philadelphia with other cities.
“There were some days when the Post Office got 40 million packages, unlike any other business,” Jindel said.
Now, as more packages continue to be sent, tracking shows “it’s last in, first out,” he said. For many people, the USPS tracking hasn’t shown an update on their item for weeks, creating an agonizing wait for not only presents, but also essential items such as bills, medication, and important records.
In anticipation of record package levels, private carriers such as UPS and FedEx cut off delivery service for some retailers, which funneled even more parcels through an already overwhelmed Postal Service. USPS hired thousands of temporary workers, and increased late and extra delivery trips, but pileups continued.
ShipMatrix data show that across all carriers, more than a million packages were delayed more than 30 days over the country. About 0.2% of FedEx packages and 0.39% of UPS items were delayed more than 30 days, while USPS saw 1.54% of packages delayed for more than a month.
The unprecedented package volumes were coupled with poor preparation and a severe employee shortage due to rising COVID-19 cases, as nearly 19,000 workers were in quarantine at the end of 2020 after being infected or exposed to the virus, according to the American Postal Workers Union.
The result was a backlog that veteran postal workers said was unlike anything they’ve seen. Facilities across the region were so full that trailers filled with mail were sitting in parking lots, and a miles-long caravan of trucks waited for hours outside the Southwest Philadelphia site because there was no room to unload parcels. Using USPS tracking, people watched their items arrive in Philadelphia, then never leave.
“Shippers across the board were challenged with airlifts and trucking capacity for moving historic volumes, causing temporary pockets of delays,” USPS spokesperson Naddia Dhalai said in an emailed statement. “As is our duty, we accepted all volumes and our employees rose to the occasion to deliver for America. This epic volume was also amplified by employee availability challenges and necessary COVID-19 policies designed to keep our employees and our communities safe.”
Dhalai said the Philadelphia processing center hired 280 temporary employees for the 2020 holiday season.
Kubat, who works as a clerk in the Allentown facility, said the Postal Service has agreed to keep the temporary holiday employees through March to help sort through the backlog, instead of ending their contracts in January, as usual.
Urging customers to be patient may work if they are merely waiting on gifts, but for the millions who rely on the Postal Service for the delivery of medication, time-sensitive records, and bills, the delays could have more serious consequences.
“There was an uptick right before Christmas of people” calling with concerns about not getting their bills, said Peco spokesperson Thomas Brubaker. Nearly 70% of Peco’s customers — or 1.1 million people — receive their bills through the mail, though some use both electronic and mail billing, Brubaker said. The utility has lifted late fees amid the pandemic.
Jeffrey Thomason, of Ridley Township, said his three-month supply of Type 2 diabetes medication sat in the Philadelphia processing plant for 20 days. USPS tracking showed that it arrived in Philadelphia on Dec. 3, but never got scanned out for delivery.
Thomason, 76, eventually called his pharmacist, who re-sent the refill by UPS. It arrived within days, he said. The original prescription ended up arriving Dec. 23.
Now his 67-year-old wife, JoAnn, is experiencing delays getting her cancer medication. It was shipped on Dec. 22, and tracking last showed it was in Maryland, Thomason said.
Kubat said the Lehigh Valley facility is making slow but steady progress.
“I know people are still frustrated, but we are doing everything that we can,” he said. “People are still working the maximum number of hours to get the mail cleared out.”