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Millions of Christmas gifts may arrive late in U.S. because of delivery backlogs

UPDATED: Mon., Dec. 21, 2020

USPS letter carrier Rick Cadwallader makes his way along his mail route on N. Oak Street in Spokane on Oct. 23. A series of crises means millions of Christmas gifts may not arrive on time.  (Dan Pelle/The Spokesman-Revew)
USPS letter carrier Rick Cadwallader makes his way along his mail route on N. Oak Street in Spokane on Oct. 23. A series of crises means millions of Christmas gifts may not arrive on time. (Dan Pelle/The Spokesman-Revew)
By Jacob Bogage </p><p>and Hannah Denham Washington Post

WASHINGTON – Competing crises are slamming the U.S. Postal Service days before Christmas, imperiling the delivery of millions of packages as the mail agency contends with spiking coronavirus case numbers among its workforce, unprecedented volumes of e-commerce orders and the continuing fallout from a hobbled cost-cutting program launched by the postmaster general.

Nearly 19,000 of the agency’s 644,000 workers have called in sick or are isolating because of the novel coronavirus, according to the American Postal Workers Union. Meanwhile, packages have stacked up at some postal facilities, leading employees to push them aside to create narrow walkways on shop floors.

Some processing plants are refusing to accept new mail shipments. The backlogs are so pronounced that some managers have reached out to colleagues in hope of diverting mail shipments to nearby facilities. But often, those places are full, too. Meanwhile, packages sit on trucks for days waiting for floor space to open so their loads can be sorted.

“(Customers) are screaming, ‘Where’s my package? Why did it go to Jacksonville, Fla., when it’s going to Miami?’ ” said Martin Ramirez, president of the APWU Local 170 in Ohio. “I can’t speak on that. I’ve never seen this before where these places are overflowing.”

The end result: Many families will not see online orders arrive in time for Christmas Day.

Through Dec. 12, the start of the Postal Service’s busiest period for package deliveries, parcel volume was up 14% compared with the same period in 2019, the agency told mailing industry officials.

That surge has employees in some areas working upward of 80 hours a week, including some who have worked every day since Thanksgiving without a weekend. In Philadelphia, staffers are scheduled to work Christmas Day, said one mail carrier, who like others interviewed for this report, spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid retribution.

Mail performance has plummeted: 75.3% of first-class mail, such as letters and bills, arrived within the standard one- to three-day delivery window the week of Dec. 5, according to the most recent agency data available. This time last year, the mail service’s on-time score was 95%.

Private express carriers, also inundated by package shipments, have stopped serving some retailers altogether, sending more packages through the USPS.

The agency is receiving as many as 6 million packages a day since FedEx and UPS enacted restrictions on large-volume retail shippers in early December, according to industry tracking firm ShipMatrix. For the week of Dec. 6, FedEx delivered 93.9% of its parcels on time, UPS delivered 96.1%, and the Postal Service, 87.5%. The agency’s drop in performance compared with the previous two-week period held up more than 3.5 million parcels by one or more days.

“This year can’t end fast enough,” said Jennifer Lemke, the clerk craft director at APWU Local 170 in northern Ohio.

Adding to the slowdowns is on-the-ground confusion over the cost-cutting initiatives that new Postmaster General Louis DeJoy implemented over the summer and paused at the direction of five federal courts. The Postal Service has appealed several of those rulings.

In the meantime, those battles have created uncertainty in the ranks about specific delivery procedures.

“No parcels are moving at all,” said one postal worker in Michigan, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk publicly. “As bad as you think it is, it’s worse.”

While the perfect storm of crises probably will delay millions of holiday packages and greeting cards, other more essential items, including prescription medications, bills and benefits checks also may be stuck in limbo.

Postal officials expressed worry that vaccine deliveries from private shipping companies could displace other loads of packages and overwhelm parts of the mail system.

“We’re doing the very best we can,” said APWU National President Mark Dimondstein. “We know you appreciate that. This is a long, hard struggle. We’re asking for your patience, and no delayed gift should take away from the valuable family time and the reason people come together and celebrate. Hopefully everything will make it there on time. But if it doesn’t, it’ll still get there.”

U.S. Postal Service spokesman David Partenheimer said the agency is flexing its network to ensure that it is able to sort, process and deliver the mail despite the staff shortages and capacity challenges. “Our entire Operations team, from collections, to processing to delivery, worked throughout this past weekend and continues to work round-the-clock to address the historic volume,” he said.

The delays come after a tumultuous summer and election season for the Postal Service. DeJoy, a former logistics executive and major Republican fundraiser and donor to President Trump, took office in June while the agency was projecting an operating shortfall due to declining use of first-class mail.

The underqualified DeJoy moved rapidly to cut costs and instituted a strict transportation schedule that cracked down on overtime hours and banned late and extra transportation and delivery trips.

Almost immediately, service suffered. A Postal Service inspector general report found that DeJoy and agency leaders did not conduct any analysis of the effects of the new policies and did not consult the Postal Regulatory Commission about the changes, as courts have said the Postal Service was lawfully required to do. In the first five weeks of the policy, which was enacted in June and rescinded shortly before the November election, more than 7% of the nation’s first-class mail was delayed, according to a Senate investigation.

But packages have buoyed the agency’s finances. Parcel volumes in May and June beat 2019 figures by 20% to 80% each week, staving off – at least temporarily – financial ruin. Mailing and package firms cheered those numbers, as well as market prognostications that e-commerce shopping habits elevated during the pandemic might endure beyond, injecting hundreds of millions of dollars permanently into the sector.

The flood of holiday packages, though, appears to have pushed the mail system to the brink.

Retail analysts say more than two years of e-commerce sales growth were crammed into 2020, starting in March when the pandemic took hold and surging again during this holiday season.

In the United States, online shopping sales are projected to reach $795 billion this year, up more than 30% from a year ago, according to research firm eMarketer.

“It boils down to too much of a good thing,” said Art Sackler, executive director of the Coalition for a 21st Century Postal Service, an industry group whose members include Amazon, eBay and other commercial mailers.

To ensure delivery by Dec. 25, the Postal Service recommended allowing 10 days for retail ground service and making Dec. 23 the latest date for priority mail express service.

But that’s still not a guarantee, and consumers across the country are reporting that orders made as early as Black Friday still not materializing.

Retailers have issued warnings to customers regarding shipping windows. Besides a banner on Walmart’s website advertising “last call for pickup,” the big-box retailer’s most recent guidance for shipping cutoffs was issued Tuesday for customers still shopping for gifts and groceries to arrive by Christmas Eve.

T.J. Maxx issued some of the earliest shipping cutoffs among top retailers, saying on its website that standard ground shipping orders must be placed by Dec. 9 to ensure Dec. 24-or-earlier delivery. The company did not respond to a request for comment.

Best Buy – which offers same-day delivery through Roadie, Shipt and Instacart – is enlisting store employees to drop off packages at customers’ homes daily until 10:30 p.m. in the run-up to Christmas.

In late November, Amazon designated cutoffs for Prime users hoping to make the Christmas deadline: Dec. 23 for one-day delivery and Dec. 24 for same-day delivery. (Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

Other private mail carriers advised earlier cutoffs. UPS told customers to send their mail by Dec. 21 for three-day select delivery, Dec. 22 for second-day air delivery and Dec. 23 for next day air delivery to arrive by Christmas Eve.

FedEx was more cautious with estimated shipping time: For domestic packages to arrive by Christmas Day, the company listed Dec. 9 as the last day to ship through its SmartPost service and Dec. 15 for ground shipping. In a news release, FedEx advised businesses to “refer to this calendar regularly and adjust order cutoff dates on your website as needed to help your customers avoid delays” and suspended its money-back guarantee for customers shipping with express, ground, freight and office services until further notice.

In the meantime, some small-business owners are encouraging their customers to print photos or PDFs of their ordered gifts to wrap and open on Christmas Day until the real thing arrives. Some consumers whose packages are missing or have been listed “in transit” for more than a week, or have been offered refunds or reorders are giving up on on-time delivery and instead sending money or gift cards, making handmade presents, or shopping in stores.

“I mailed a package out,” said a Postal Service manager in Florida, “and I’m trying to explain to my wife why the packages I mailed for her niece’s Christmas and birthday didn’t get there in time.”

With days to go before Christmas and millions of packages caught in delivery limbo, many retailers are shifting their focus to same-day delivery and curbside pickup.

Macy’s and Bloomingdales are partnering with restaurant delivery service DoorDash to get orders to shoppers’ front doors, while Sephora and Best Buy have similar arrangements with grocery delivery service Instacart. Many others, including J.C. Penney, Kohl’s and World Market are offering discounts of as much as 20% to shoppers who pick up online orders curbside or in stores.

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