When Jacob Gray opened the box of chicks he ordered, he saw that about 300 of them had been mashed to a pulp. The 100 or so birds that survived tread on their dead fellows and nibbled on what remained of them.
Gray, 28, has been ordering chicks from a breeder in California for his farm in rural southwest Colorado for more than seven years. He never lost more than about a dozen birds in a perforated box of 400 because the U.S. Postal Service delivered them within two days.
That changed over the past few months, as the boxes arrived days late to his home in Delta County, Colorado, an area larger than Rhode Island with a population of about 30,000 people.
“I opened it up and was immediately hit with the smell of death,” he said of the most recent box he received two weeks ago. “Sometimes, the post office would call us in the morning and say, ‘Get these things out of here,’ because they smelled so bad.”
Hundreds of baby birds Gray ordered this summer have died, and he said he had to cancel his remaining orders and renegotiate his farm loan because of nearly $4,000 in losses — more than 10 percent of what he’d hoped to earn this year.
Recent Postal Service delays have affected millions of Americans’ packages and letters, but the impact has been particularly widespread and difficult in rural communities, which depend on the federal agency more than densely populated regions of the United States.
In addition to chicks and other small livestock, including honeybees, farmers order seeds and specialty tools they can no longer purchase locally. Meanwhile, hundreds of rural pharmacies have closed in recent years, leaving residents dependent on mailed prescriptions. In addition, millions of people living in remote areas lack broadband internet, so they rely on the Postal Service to pay bills, receive paychecks, conduct business and correspond with family and friends.
“As important as the Postal Service is to the rest of the country,” said Arthur Sackler, manager of the Coalition for a 21st Century Postal Service, an independent group that advocates for the agency in Washington, D.C., “it’s considerably more so to our far-flung rural areas.”
The Postal Service came under intense scrutiny in recent weeks over the long wait times for letter and package deliveries. Many blamed recently appointed Postmaster General Louis DeJoy, a Republican donor and ally of President Donald Trump.
In two tense Congressional hearings last month, Democrats accused DeJoy, a former logistics executive, of hamstringing the agency on Trump’s behalf to undermine mail-in voting. DeJoy and the president have both rejected the characterization that they were holding up the mail for political reasons, with the postmaster general largely blaming the pandemic for the widespread delay of deliveries.
“The U.S. Postal Service, like other delivery companies, has experienced some temporary service disruptions in a few locations domestically, due to the COVID-19 pandemic,” Postal Service spokeswoman Kim Frum said in an email. “Things are slowly getting back to normal, however until we reach pre-COVID conditions, we continue to leverage our available resources to match the increased workload, including hiring based on local needs.”
While the Postal Service’s performance is beginning to tick back upward, after timely deliveries fell more than 10 percent beginning in July, according to the agency’s numbers, people living in rural communities say they’re still seeing the fallout of the delays. The Postal Service reported last week that its “last mile” delivery network — or mail that is carried to underserved rural communities — remained down 4.26 percent from its baseline.
Gray expanded his farm earlier this year, putting up new buildings and planning to begin selling his pasture-raised chickens to restaurant distributors in Denver. But the delays have put his business in jeopardy. He hoped to earn more than $30,000 this year, but the losses have eaten into more than 10 percent of his income, as even the birds that survive the delays have become sick and died before he can process and sell them.
“It’s delaying things,” he said. “We’re not maybe going to lose the farm, but it hurts.”
Rob Larew, the president of the National Farmers Union, a group that represents thousands of farmers across 33 states, said many of his members have complained about continued delays harming their businesses. And the effect goes beyond farmers, he said, since the Postal Service is a critical lifeline for rural communities nationwide.
“Out here, it just isn't that simple,” he said from his farm in rural West Virginia. “Everything already takes additional time, and so that adds cost. Even if it's not delivery cost, it's the cost of time. If you start to remove those last key delivery options, you put rural communities in a complete bind.”
The Federal Communications Commission estimated this year that 14.5 million Amercians in rural areas don't have access to broadband internet in an increasingly digital world. Larew pointed out that the Postal Service helps connect people who don’t have the internet at their fingertips.
Critics say the cause of the Postal Service delays is DeJoy’s insistence that mail trucks run on time, which he admitted before Congress that he did without adjusting mail processing. That meant mail trucks were leaving processing facilities close to empty, with mail and packages left behind, mail carriers have previously told NBC News. And that led to a backlog of deliveries at many post offices.
DeJoy’s detractors have also raised concerns about the Postal Service’s decision to remove letter-sorting machines and blue collection boxes, which appeared to coincide with Trump’s disparagement of mail-in voting and the Postal Service’s warning to dozens of states that they may not be able to handle the millions of mailed ballots expected this year.
After facing public pressure, DeJoy said he would suspend — though not reverse — all policy or operational changes until after the presidential election.
Postal workers, meanwhile, emphasized that DeJoy had cut back on overtime and extra trips that carriers took to ensure the swift delivery of mail. DeJoy stated in congressional testimony that overtime rates had remained the same. Extra trips, though, have dropped: Postal Service data shows that they fell from close to 150,000 at the end of June to fewer than 5,000 at the end of August.
Sackler, of the Coalition for a 21st Century Postal Service, said many of these decisions — particularly the removal of the mail-sorting machines and blue boxes — preceded DeJoy, but the postmaster general and the agency pursued them with a lack of transparency, causing confusion.
“There was no real consultation of any kind with postal stakeholders, with unions, with customers, with Congress about how [DeJoy] was going to be doing this, and predictably service dropped,” he said.
The drop in service, meanwhile, has many looking toward November. While many states expect to see a rise in mail-in ballots this year amid coronavirus concerns, rural residents are particularly reliant on the Postal Service for voting access.
Larew said the Farmers Union noticed that polling locations in rural places, once run by older people who sign up to be poll workers, have a deficit of volunteers this year. Local governments, including in Larew’s native West Virginia, have begun to consolidate polling locations in response, which means rural Americans will have to drive farther to cast their ballots.
Other states are seeing similar issues. Louisiana Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin announced a recruitment campaign this week because of a shortage of volunteers. Texas consolidated nearly a dozen polling locations in its most rural counties before July’s election because of a lack of poll workers.
The Election Assistance Commission said that more than half of the 900,000 poll workers who served in 2016 were over the age of 60, meaning that the majority of those poll workers would be considered at high-risk during the pandemic. That has many election officials concerned they could see a major shortfall come November.
“Mail-in ballots are the only safe and reasonable alternative to that,” Larew said. “Limiting the access or reliability of that marginalizes these rural residents.”
The delays have also taken a toll on mailed prescription drugs.
With a growing number of insurance companies forcing or incentivizing Americans to receive their prescription drugs by mail, rather than from a brick-and-mortar pharmacy, the number of mailed medications has grown in recent years and even more so amid the pandemic.
The Postal Service managed 1.2 billion prescription drug shipments last year — or about 4 million each day, six days a week — the National Association of Letter Carriers reported. Rural residents in particular depend on mailed medications, as 1,231 independently owned rural pharmacies, or approximately 16 percent, closed between 2003 and 2018, according to the RUPRI Center for Rural Health Policy Analysis.
“For these isolated and marginalized rural communities, and for the farmers and ranchers in them, the Postal Service has been a great equalizer and essential service that has helped them at least be able to tap into some of what everyone else has,” Larew said. “For people out here, the Postal Service is absolutely a lifeline.”