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For holiday shoppers, last-minute gift deliveries may not be an option this year

The postal service's package volume increased by 1.2 billion last year — and is likely to grow again this year.

Waiting until the last minute to mail holiday gifts to friends and family isn't likely to be an option this year, with post offices already warning that labor shortages and larger-than-usual package volumes may lead to significant holiday delivery delays.

Already, Chicago carriers have been delivering late into the night, trying to get through all their mail within the day, and Iowa offices are so short-staffed that some postal routes have no designated carriers. Every year, U.S. Postal Service workers prepare themselves for the busy holiday season, the last two weeks of November through December. But postal workers from Iowa, Illinois and Maine said that they have been delivering a holiday-level load for months and that they're afraid this holiday season will be the heaviest to date.

"We used to call the holiday season 'our season,'" said Mack Julion, a mail carrier and the union representative for the National Association of Letter Carriers Branch 11 in Chicago. "This is where we stayed head and shoulders above the rest. So we're going to leave it all out there, give it the best that we can."

Delivery services all have the same message this year: Shop early and ship early.

Julion said he is afraid this holiday season will tarnish the Postal Service's reputation for good. He said that when he started as a mail carrier 24 years ago, people associated the Postal Service with accessibility, timeliness and delivery in the rain, snow, sleet or sunshine. But the number of packages has steadily increased throughout the coronavirus pandemic, overfilling postal trucks, and delays have become the norm. As holiday shoppers ramp up their online gift purchases, he's afraid the significant delivery delays and price increases will lead to unhappy customers.

Chuck Zlatkin, the communications director for the New York Metro Area Postal Union, said he has seen more retirements this year and during the pandemic than ever before. He said that while mail has been heavier than ever recently, delivering it has always been a rigorous job and that even seasoned carriers decades into the position are unhappy with the service's changes.

"It is impacting the longtime workers, the people who were here for 10, sometimes 20 years," Zlatkin said.

Martha Johnson, a senior public relations representative for the Postal Service, said in an email that there has been a "national drive" to hire 40,000 seasonal hires and that the Postal Service plans to install 112 additional package sorting machines to accelerate mail processing.

Mark Seitz, the president of the Maine State Association of Letter Carriers and the National Association of Letter Carriers Branch 92, said: "They keep saying they're going to hire seasonal help, and they can't even find regular help. The staffing has regressed considerably everywhere."

Seitz, who has been a carrier for 18 years, said the package volume was so high last holiday season that carriers had to pile mail up in the parking lot, with some in the Portland area staying out late in low temperatures and brutal Maine weather through December. As people have grown accustomed to ordering daily necessities online, compounded by holiday gifts, he is afraid that, without increased staffing, the problem will be worse this year.

But Johnson said that the Postal Service learned from the increased deliveries last year and that it's doing everything it can to prepare for high package volumes.

"We started investing in our equipment, people, and facilities for the holiday season earlier than ever this year and we are ready to deliver," she said in her email. "Our customers should feel confident sending their holiday mail and packages through the postal service this year."

UPS is also optimistic about deliveries, but it encourages people to shop early to prevent holiday season delays.

Jim Mayer, UPS' media relations director, said the company initiated a hiring push for 60,000 new employees on Friday, known as "brown Friday." He said that while the hires are seasonal, UPS hopes people will stay on as career carriers.

"We will get the packages delivered — but don't wait" to get started, he said.

FedEx echoed UPS' sentiment, urging customers to send gifts out as soon as possible as it "continues to navigate operational challenges due to ... increased package volume and the ongoing pandemic," Joseph Miner, a senior communications specialist, said in an emailed statement.

"We strongly encourage all customers planning on shopping online for the holidays to shop early and ship early," Miner said.