The U.S. Postal Service is running pretty smoothly compared to where things were this time a year ago.

In the Philadelphia region, the mail is largely being sorted and delivered, employees are back to work, and the agency has hired new people and upgraded machinery ahead of the holiday season.

“Right now, we’re in great shape,” said Laurence Love, a 36-year assistant clerk craft director at the Philadelphia Processing and Delivery Center. “More people are working, and we’re getting less mail.”

But more changes are here. As part of Postmaster General Louis DeJoy’s 10-year strategic plan, which aims to cut the agency’s losses, raise revenue, and process and deliver more packages, the delivery of first-class mail traveling long distances is slowing down, and postage rates are increasing.

Still, amid months of strategic planning following a tumultuous 2020, postal employees in eastern Pennsylvania said they are optimistic heading into the holiday season.

“We’re caught up, there’s no backlog, and I think we are on time for deliveries,” said Andy Kubat, president of the Lehigh Valley Area American Postal Workers Union.

Last year, the Postal Service faced immense delays, the product of record mail volumes as more Americans shopped online, and a massive employee shortage amid coronavirus cases and a liberal pandemic leave policy. Then, cost-cutting operational changes, which limited overtime and extra delivery trips, caused mail to pile up, leaving some Philadelphians to go weeks without important deliveries like medications.

Philadelphia employees often found themselves working 12-hour days, and during the holiday season, a months-long backlog left tens of thousands of parcels delayed for weeks at the Southwest Philadelphia facility.

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The Postal Service entered 2021 determined to stabilize, invest in hiring, and install newer machinery, said Paul F. Smith, a USPS spokesperson. And so far, it’s working.

The biggest change from last summer to now, employees said, is that people are back to work — largely because of fewer coronavirus cases and quarantines. Last year, Love, like many postal workers, often worked 20 hours of overtime each week — the maximum under their union contract — to fill in for absences and to accommodate the higher mail volume.

Now, he’s not working any, a sign that the mail is being sorted and delivered efficiently, he said. He said that a new slate of managers at the Philly plant have been running things well.

“The mail is flowing right now,” he said.

A longtime Delaware County mail carrier also said conditions have improved.

“That period a year ago, when you’re working 12-14 hours per day, seven days a week, it just seemed unending,” said the carrier, who asked to remain anonymous because he is not authorized to speak to the press.

“There’s optimism. There was no optimism a year ago, that’s for sure,” he said. “My paychecks have decreased but my happiness has increased.”

New machinery, more employees

Philadelphia’s Processing and Distribution Center off of Lindbergh Boulevard became one of the first to receive a new 221-foot-long sorting machine that sorts 50,000 packages per day and should dramatically expedite a once labor-intensive process.

Previously, during heavy-volume periods like the holidays, packages that couldn’t be sorted in time by existing machinery had to be hand-sorted — and during last year’s employee shortage, there were few people to do that job.

The new machine sorts packages 12 times faster than the previous manual method. By the end of October, 112 of these machines will be installed around the country, said Smith. A facility in Northeast Philly, and the Lehigh Valley processing center, also received new package-sorting machinery.

The Postal Service delivered a record 1.1 billion packages during the 2020 holiday season — 25% higher than the previous year — and the agency expects to see continuous growth, Smith said.

To prepare for another busy year, it’s hiring about 500 seasonal employees in the Philadelphia area and about 40,000 nationwide, Smith said.

Kubat, of the Lehigh Valley area, said about 90 clerks were recently hired, the most new full-time employees he can remember the agency hiring.

Kubat said Allentown employee quarantines due to COVID-19 exposures have increased recently, but employee numbers remain stable. Smith declined to share what percent of postal employees are vaccinated, citing privacy laws.

DeJoy’s 10-year plan: Slower delivery, more stable finances

For decades, the Postal Service has sought to deliver all U.S. first-class mail, regardless of its origin or destination, within three days.

On Oct. 1, new service standards were implemented that will slow down the speed at which first-class mail travels across long distances. For about 70% of first-class mail, that three-day delivery window will remain, but for the other 30% traveling long distances, like from Philadelphia to California, it could take up to five days to get there.

Postage will also increase by about 9%, according to the Washington Post, with stamps going from 55 cents to 60. Prices for commercial and retail domestic packages will increase through Dec. 26, due to the higher holiday-season mail volume.

Much of the slowdown is because the Postal Service is cutting the amount of mail being flown by airplane, and relying more on it being driven, which DeJoy says will save the agency money and is more reliable.

DeJoy believes that by adjusting service standards — which the agency has failed to consistently meet for years — and investing in package delivery as letter mail volumes continue to decline, customers will have more reliable service and the Postal Service will become more financially stable.

Opposition to the plan

Public officials and consumer advocates have said that the changes could harm people who rely on the mail for important items like prescriptions, and further erode the public’s trust in the 246-year-old institution.

A group of 21 attorneys general, led by Pennsylvania’s Josh Shapiro, wrote a letter to the Postal Regulatory Commission to oppose the changes, arguing it would have a “detrimental impact on residents who rely on the Postal Service to pay bills, receive paychecks and public benefits, and vote.”

Rep. Dwight Evans of Philadelphia’s 3rd Congressional District said that the Postal Board of Governors should fire DeJoy for his role in the agency’s struggles last year.

“I think it sounds like warming up to privatization, and I am 100% against that,” Evans said of the new plan.

The postal workers union supports parts of the plan, but opposes the delivery slowdowns.

“You don’t get to change the delivery standards and then say, ‘Look, the scores went up,’ ” said Kubat. “You just changed the metrics, that’s all.”

For Terez Giuliana, that trust is already gone.

Giuliana, 65, said mail delivery to her Roxborough home has still been inconsistent. After experiencing delays last year, Giuliana now drives an hour to pick up a prescription, which is temperature-sensitive and could be spoiled if not delivered on time. She also plans to use UPS or FedEx when sending holiday packages.

Most recently, she and her husband ordered a new mattress, but the first bill for their monthly payment never arrived, and they nearly faced late fees. She said that two elderly neighbors have accrued late fees because the bills they pay by mail haven’t been delivered on time.

“For people who can’t do online payments, it’s really terrible,” she said.