WASHINGTON — With just days to go until Christmas, the U.S. Postal Service says it is on track to meet its holiday delivery deadlines, despite worker shortages across the country that have caused delays and disruptions to mail and package deliveries in the run-up to the holidays.
The Postal Service expects all priority mail packages shipped by Dec. 19 and express packages shipped by Dec. 23 to arrive at their destinations by Christmas. The agency said on-time deliveries have increased from last year, with nearly 92% of first-class letters arriving within one to five days. Around 96% of packages have been getting to their destination on time this month, according to independent data firm Shipmatrix.
It’s a vast improvement from where the Postal Service was at this time two years ago, when a wave of Covid infections, a surge in online shopping and operational issues resulted in weeks of delays for holiday packages.
Still, customers in some parts of the country say they have continued to experience issues with delayed packages, items going missing in the tracking system and sporadic mail delivery and pick up. The issues pre-date the holidays but have taken on new urgency with the need for holiday shipments to arrive on time.
“They are putting out numbers which sound good, but throughout this year there have been a number of pockets of problems that have arisen in areas where there’s just a meltdown in service" said Paul Steidler, a senior fellow at the Lexington Institute who researches shipping and logistics.
Steidler said he has spoken to consumers in Kansas, Washington, Montana, Maryland and Vermont who have had severe disruptions to their mail for weeks at a time throughout the course of the year. While the issues are resolved eventually, he said there is an overall inconsistency across the system with the reliability of the mail. Still, he believes things are looking good for the holiday season.
“The Postal Service has shown an inclination to do whatever it takes to avoid the nightmare that they had in 2020. So they’re going to pay vendors and they’re going to pay staff what is needed in order for things to be delivered on time this time of year,” he said.
Shane Gottwals, who ships about 5,000 packages a month with USPS through his business Gottwals Books, said he’s seen a significant improvement in deliveries over the past month. But over the course of the year he’s had to refund thousands of dollars to customers because of items that have gone missing or been severely delayed by the Postal Service.
“The bigger problem for us year round isn’t things not getting there on time, it’s things not getting there at all,” said Gottwals, who runs books stores across the country. “We’ve refunded thousands of dollars worth of sales on items that we’d committed to sending and we did ship it, but it just never showed up. I can’t count how many times that has happened. But specifically for this Christmas season, we really honestly can just give two thumbs up.”
Sean Brownlee, CEO of Ravenox, which makes rope products ranging from commercial fishing lines to dog leashes, said his North Carolina-based company has gone days without their postal carrier coming by to pick up orders, and he regularly has packages that aren’t scanned or go missing in the USPS tracking system. That’s left clients frustrated over the status of their delivery, who then write negative reviews of his company.
“We as a business don’t have any recourse, and to keep our customers happy and coming back we eat the costs, we ship them another product and hopefully they’ll accept it,” said Brownlee. “For plenty of folks, if it’s Christmas, they’ll have gone to get something else.”
Other businesses said they have gone weeks without regular mail deliveries and have had checks, holiday bonuses and important documents never arrive.
Irregular mail deliveries have become such a consistent problem in Montana that Republican Sen. Steve Daines has repeatedly reached out to Postmaster General Louis DeJoy to try to find a solution. Daines wrote DeJoy in July and October saying that some of his constituents were going more than two weeks without mail deliveries. Despite the efforts, he said the problems have persisted.
“I am deeply concerned about the severe delays and interruptions in postal service experienced by Montanans,” Daines said in a statement. “Especially around the holidays, Montanans count on the USPS to deliver packages and letters — not to mention prescriptions, checks, bills and more."
Many of the delays in mail deliveries are the result of staffing shortages that have plagued the Postal Service for the past two years, said Brian Renfroe, president of the National Association of Letter Carriers. Similar to many industries, the Postal Service has struggled to recruit and retain workers, and it has had to compete with a range of other employers, like UPS and Amazon, that have been offering higher wages and hiring bonuses.
“This season is going really well,” Renfroe said. “There are certainly locations where we have isolated problems, and those problems are almost always driven by just simply not having enough people.”
He added that while the Postal Service was able to meet its goal of hiring 20,000 temporary workers for the holiday season, there are still areas with a lack of workers causing some employees to work more than 12 hours a day, six days a week this month to meet the demand.
The Postal Service has been working to revamp its workforce and logistics in recent years, converting more than 100,000 part-time employees to full-time since 2021, installing hundreds of new processing machines and adding new processing facilities. Earlier this year, Congress appropriated $107 million to the Postal Service to fund a systemwide overhaul to modernize equipment and facilities.
“We expect a very successful 2022 peak holiday season,” said Albert Ruiz, a Postal Service spokesperson. “Preparations began in January and build on the investments and organizational strategy improvements made ahead of the successful 2021 holiday mailing and shipping season. And our work and investments are paying off.”
Despite a winter storm bearing down on much of the country, the Postal Service said it has contingency plans in place for weather events and that its workers have the proper equipment to do their jobs safely.
But what happens after the holiday season remains a concern, particularly for members of Congress who said they continue to have questions about the consistency of mail deliveries to their constituents.
“While postal delivery performance has not deteriorated to past levels, small businesses cannot afford any delays,” said Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., chairman of the subcommittee that oversees the Postal Service. “Our brave USPS workers are doing heroic work, but they need a Postmaster General that is giving them all the tools to succeed. We should be surging temporary holiday hires to ensure every package is delivered on time.”