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Mail has been showing up on time, but don't be fooled: Slower days are coming

Despite a recent bump in on-time performance, data shows a decade long decline.
Image: Post Office Operations As Vote-by-Mail Fight Opens New Front For Democrats Against Trump
U.S. Postal Service employees load mail and packages into delivery vehicles outside a post office in Torrance, California.Patrick T. Fallon / Bloomberg via Getty Images file

The mail has been arriving faster. Enjoy it while it lasts.

U.S. Postal Service delivery data published last week shows that mail delivery had its strongest performance in the past year for most types of mail in the three months ending June 30. It’s a bounce back from the numbers during the pandemic’s first year, when service reached its lowest point in more than a decade.

But while new figures show improvements in performance, a chaotic 2020 pummeled the industry and along with planned changes to delivery speeds and prices that now has experts, consumers and business owners concerned.

“Service performance continued to improve, but that was based on a comparison with a year in which performance has declined substantially,” said James O’Rourke, a management professor at the University of Notre Dame who has tracked the USPS for more than a decade.

For Howard Walters, getting mail on time is a critical health matter. He lives in Battle Creek, Michigan, with his father, who routinely receives medical prescription refills from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. A recently delayed shipment forced him to miss a couple of doses.

“We’ve been doing this for years. No challenges, no problems, no misdoses, just everything like clockwork,” Walters said. “But over this past year, it just seems like something has been broken. A matter of maintaining good health is at stake.”

Susan Clayton, who owns a small business selling nonsurgical masks in Baltimore, also worries about slow mail. During the 2020 holiday season, Clayton had to refund several customers because their packages arrived late or were lost.

“It affects the small business community — not just me, but other people — when the USPS has delayed products,” Clayton said.

To address these challenges, Postmaster General Louis DeJoy unveiled a 10-year plan in March that seeks to modernize the Postal Service’s infrastructure and enable career development. The plan also calls for higher postage rates and some slower services.

The Postal Service this month also proposed adding a surcharge to most packages shipped during the upcoming holiday season, in addition to submitting a rule to the Federal Register calling for the current service standard for first-class mail to add one to two days for delivery, from one-to-three-days to one-to-five days. The rule goes into effect Oct. 1, and will affect an estimated 3 out of every 10 pieces of mail.

“The new normal is going to be disappointingly slow, and prices are not going to go down,” O’Rourke said. “What the Postal Service’s new plan is asking is that you get accustomed to the notion that two-day or three-day service is just not going to happen. It’s going to be more like a week.”

The USPS last week noted in the proposed rule that the changes won’t affect package deliveries, such as those of prescription medications. And DeJoy said he believes that this change, among many others, is necessary to help the USPS reverse a projected $160 billion in losses over the next decade.

“We are confident we are headed in the right direction, which is slightly away from what we have done in the past,” DeJoy said at a meeting of the Postal Service Board of Governors this month.

Experts say one reason for the pandemic decline was the sizable increase in package deliveries.

Packages are more cumbersome and take more work to deliver, said Kevin Kosar, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute who has also studied the USPS for more than a decade.

“The Postal Service was built to carry paper mail,” Kosar said. “Its trucks were built for that, its Post Offices, its mail-sorting machines. Everything was structured around paper-based mail.”

Recent labor shortages have also affected service. As noted by the USPS, noncareer employee turnover is at 40 percent, and tens of thousands of employees have had to quarantine at some point during the pandemic because of illness or exposure.

Kosar is optimistic about the new plan. “It’s the first time I have seen the Postal Service in nearly 20 years of watching it actually put forth a realistic plan for turning itself around,” he said.

O’Rourke, however, sees a disaster looming.

“The current postmaster general is determined to try and do what he can on the cost side of the ledger,” he said, “but that’s like trying to make the Titanic lighter by tossing chairs overboard.”