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Mail Delivery Remains Slow Even After Holiday Crush

NOEL KING, HOST:

On Thursday, January 14, my niece finally got the card I sent her a week before Christmas - might sound familiar. The U.S. Postal Service is being challenged - operational changes, a workforce strained by COVID-19 and just a lot of mail. Here's Quinn Klinefelter from member station WDET.

QUINN KLINEFELTER, BYLINE: Online shopping skyrocketed during the pandemic, and both the Postal Service and customers are still coping. In cities like St. Louis, postal workers are putting in 12-hour days and pulling extra shifts. In Baltimore, utility customers are receiving bills in the mail that are already past due. And outside the main post office in Detroit, Lucy Johnson says late mail delivery is putting her house at risk.

LUCY JOHNSON: Got a bill back - my mortgage payment - and it said it was late last month, and I know I mailed it 10 days in advance and they still charged me a late charge. Seems like the bills come on time, but when you mail them back out, they don't get there on time. What's going on?

KLINEFELTER: The Postal Service has an answer. At the very top of its tracking page, a disclaimer reads it's, quote, "experiencing unprecedented volume increases and limited employee availability due to the impacts of COVID-19." About 20 miles east of Detroit, American Postal Workers Union official Jennifer Kowalczyk says workers have never seen anything like this.

JENNIFER KOWALCZYK: They can't believe how it's going. They just feel like there's no end in sight. This has been going on since the middle of March. So you're going on almost a year, and these people are exhausted.

KLINEFELTER: Union officials say as many as 20,000 employees are under quarantine.

KOWALCZYK: So any given day, we're six to 12 carriers short out of 60 routes. So there is days that it just can't get done.

KLINEFELTER: It is a far cry from late last year when the Postal Service rejected any mail at some major hub facilities. Art Sackler, who heads a coalition representing major bulk mailers, says the current slowdown is threatening some small businesses already reeling.

ART SACKLER: Small town newspapers that depend on the Postal Service to arrive on Saturdays so that people have the ads that they can use on Saturday when they go for their shopping, and they couldn't even drop them off.

KLINEFELTER: The Postal Service itself has long been losing money. When Postmaster General Louis DeJoy took over last summer, he moved to slash overtime, mothball sorting machines and require letter carriers to start deliveries at a specific time each day, even if it meant leaving some mail stranded. Federal courts blocked those orders. But in a recent video, DeJoy told employees more changes are coming.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LOUIS DEJOY: As we begin the new year, I want us to set a new tone. We will soon begin a process to deliver a postal service of the future that will deliver affordable and dependable service to the American public in a self-sustaining business manner.

KLINEFELTER: That worries some members of the U.S. Senate committee overseeing the Postal Service, which investigated whether it was purposely slowing delivery last year to limit mail-in ballots. Ranking Committee Democrat Gary Peters says the Postal Service is just that - a service - and can't be run like a business.

GARY PETERS: And certainly cutting costs is important, but you can't do it in a way that impacts service.

KLINEFELTER: Union officials say the Postal Service is keeping on about 10,000 temporary workers until the end of the month to help clear the massive backlog. And it's finalizing a deal to add almost 10,000 new jobs at processing plants. But its total workforce is well over 600,000 people. And even though most postal workers are next up to receive COVID-19 vaccinations, unions predict mail delivery won't improve until the pandemic relaxes its grip on the nation. For NPR News, I'm Quinn Klinefelter in Detroit.

(SOUNDBITE OF CLOUDKICKER'S "EXPLORE, BE CURIOUS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.