DENVER — Mail deliveries in several Colorado mountain towns are at least a month behind schedule, delaying service to tens of thousands of customers and leaving ill residents without their medications and others without their retirement checks and important tax documents.
Staffing shortages, short post office hours, low wages and increased housing costs have led to the backup, a situation that has persisted for years but worsened over the holiday season, town leaders say.
Many of the towns don't get home deliveries from Amazon, UPS and FedEx. Instead, their packages are dropped off at local post offices to be delivered later by contractors hired by the U.S. Postal Service as rural postal carriers, several town officials said.
Residents say mail hasn’t been reliable in months, with some waiting more than six weeks for bills, letters and postcards. Even passports have been delayed weeks beyond the standard time it takes to get one. At least 45,000 residents are affected by the slowdown.
Heather Wood, 47, who lives in Silverthorne, more than 60 miles west of Denver, said supplements to ease the effects of her stage 4 lung cancer arrived about six weeks later than expected.
“Some changes need to be made," Wood said. "I feel like the postal service needs to take a step forward.”
The backlog in Colorado is another black mark for the U.S. Postal Service, which has been criticized over the years for service delays across the country. Criticism peaked in 2020 before the presidential election as cutbacks delayed service just as millions of Americans were relying on mail-in ballots during the first year of the pandemic.
On a national level, the U.S. Postal Service said staffing shortages this year have contributed to slow mail deliveries in Elmira, New York, and South Lake Tahoe, California.
In Silverthorne, resident Ernie Frey, 65, said his three-month supply of prescription eyedrops, which cost $2,000, was delivered more than a month late. He received the last of his Christmas mail the day before Valentine's Day.
“It’s a general hardship,” Frey said, adding he's still missing four pieces of tax mail.
Other towns in the Rocky Mountains, many near world-class ski resorts, including Crested Butte, Steamboat Springs and Breckenridge, have been plagued by similar backups in recent months.
Gary Suiter, city manager of Steamboat Springs, said officials from many of the affected towns met recently to discuss their frustration with the mail delivery system.
“It was a collective groan because we’re all suffering from mail problems, staff shortages and failure to deliver packages in a timely manner,” Suiter said.
Elected officials in Colorado said they have heard complaints from constituents for years, but the problem never seems to get fixed permanently.
“There were mountain towns last year where residents didn’t get mail for three consecutive months,” said U.S. Rep. Joe Neguse, D-Colo., who this month wrote the post office manager for Colorado and Wyoming to complain.
Neguse said rural communities in Utah, Montana and Idaho are facing similar woes.
“These problems are systemic,” Neguse said.
Officials in several Colorado towns said their communities have grown since the Covid-19 crisis, making housing unaffordable for the average worker. Monthly rent for a studio apartments can cost up to $3,000, while the average starting pay for a Postal Service worker in a rural community comes to $20 to $25 an hour.
Town leaders said the post office hiring process can take months, and by the time a job is offered, many applicants have already found other work.
James Boxrud, a spokesman for the Postal Service in Colorado, acknowledged the delays affecting mountain communities.
“I profusely apologize. We didn’t make our service standards,” he said. “We’ve been short-staffed with clerks. We really did slip.”
Boxrud said several post offices began experiencing delays over the holidays when a wave of rural contract workers, who sometimes drive specialized vehicles to deliver packages in the snowy mountains, began quitting. Boxrud said he wasn't sure what led to the exodus.
Since then, he said, postal employees from Arizona, California, New Mexico and Illinois have been sent to Colorado to help out.
“We’ve finally caught up,” Boxrud said.
But complaints about missing medical prescriptions, IRS documents, letters, checkbooks and even medical forms continue to pile up, town leaders said.
In Crested Butte, wait times for packages exceed one hour with customers often waiting outside in the freezing cold, said town manager Dara MacDonald.
Because it takes so long, some residents have to take time off work to pick up their mail, she said.
Jim Schmidt, a former mayor of Crested Butte, said he has waited for more than an hour to retrieve a package on several occasions, but now he has his mail sent to a family member’s house.
Nathan Johnson, town manager of Dillon, said a shortage of postal and contract workers and a vandalized metal security gate at his post office prevented customers from having access to their P.O. boxes for weeks.
As of Friday, the gate had been repaired but mail remained three weeks behind schedule, he said.
“People are missing retirement checks and federal assistance,” Johnson said.
As postal officials try to get back on track, some residents say they have seen service improvement with fewer delays.
“We are pleased with our post office and their progress,” Breckenridge spokeswoman Brooke Attebery said in an email.